Director Lee Breuer recently said that a play should be done exactly the way the playwright intended for the first five or so productions. After that, Breuer noted, it must be reinterpreted conceptually, by a director, or it will die from irrelevance. Keep in mind that Breuer is the founding artistic director of the Mabou Mines, one of just a handful of enduring experimental theater companies that have street cred. It was under Breuer's guidance that, for example, Henrik's Ibsen's 1879 classic A Doll's House got respun, with Amazonian women playing the submissive femmes and little people playing all the men — parodying a society in which the fellas presumed they were the big shots who ran everything.
Breuer's postulation, however, contains a number of what may be faulty presumptions, the first being that after five or so productions, a new play — produced as the playwright intended — will be known and understood; that from that knowledge and understanding, a new interpretation will provide fresh and evolving insights into the play and the world it depicts. This all hangs on the tenuous idea that we live in a literate culture and, perhaps even more dubiously, a culture that is versed in the theater.
But what if the audience is being introduced, for the first time, to a classic through the radical reinterpretation of a director, whose conceptual interferences presume we've all seen A Doll's House, The Glass Menagerie and Vieux Carré dozens of times. That director's presumption is that the theater can do better than imitating a golden-oldies radio station, replaying the greatest hits from 50 years ago, over and over.
In the theater, however, the director who aches to change the dial may be trying to reframe a conversation that hasn't even started. And this is the argument wielded by local troupes such as Antaeus Company and A Noise Within, who insist that the way the playwright intended — even 400 years ago — is just fine with them. They believe all the meaning that's necessary resides simply in the words. And that hearing them again, in largely the same way (excepting the subtlest tweaks of actor reinterpretation of a line or two) provides service enough. No need for obfuscating interpretations, thank you very much. Besides, there may be children in the house. That's what their student-outreach programs aim for. That argument urges that solid, traditional productions — the way the playwrights originally envisioned their plays — provide the start of a new generation's theatrical literacy, if there are youngsters in the seats.
Yet is it necessarily a disservice, a nuisance or even a detriment to introduce an established play to new audiences when it's been goofed with by some director?
So goes the culture war, and it's an international battle, between the traditionalists and the interpreters over the meaning and purpose of a play — a canyon divided by opposing cliffs — contrary perceptions of who the audience is, what it already knows and what it wants, and whether or not a play, in principle, should be interpreted or illustrated.
Another in the handful of enduring experimental theater directors is Elizabeth LeCompte, whose Wooster Group now has an ongoing, once-a-year residency at REDCAT, and whose U.S. premiere of its version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré plays through Dec. 12.
The troupe is known for employing turn-on-a-pixel video technology as a backdrop to texts, recited by actors into headset microphones in droll tones thinly wrapped in translucent sarcasm — from Hamlet to last year's North Atlantic (a Cold War parody of South Pacific). It's rather like an inversion of the aesthetic employed by our local classic rep company A Noise Within, yet with similar consistency and insistence of purpose.
Vieux Carré is no exception to the Wooster template. If anything, the video backdrops are comparatively sparse. On seeing this production, I wasn't familiar with Tennessee Williams' 1977 autobiographical play, which looks back at the sexual discovery of a young writer through the denizens swirling around him at a 1930s New Orleans flophouse. It's rarely produced, I didn't remember having read it, and I didn't want to read it before seeing what LeCompte and company did with or to it. This was largely to test the theory of damage done, should an established play be introduced to a theatergoer via some conceptual interpretation rather than letting Williams' portrait of the French Quarter emerge the way he intended it: as an interweaving cinematic collage of torpor, disease, debauchery and death.
The play is about an atmosphere, and this production gets to the heart of it. I remain unconvinced that the legacy of the playwright, or audience members unfamiliar with it, will suffer any permanent harm from the Woosters' fascinating upending of the way we're used to seeing Williams staged.
Actors wear headset mics and sometimes gargantuan phalluses. They wander across a set of wood-and-steel platforms strewn with a plastic bucket and warehouse detritus, with only the occasional nod to New Orleans or to the 1930s (Enver Chakartash's wardrobe) and props such as an antique portrait camera, snapping away at times.
This is a play about lust and death, like a heavier-handed, melodramatic sliver of any full-length play by Anton Chekhov, substituting the Russian's delicate humor with a comparatively maudlin ennui.
This production, however, reintroduces humor, but in the form of parody — not so much a parody of the characters but of Williams' entire sensibility. It's not a vicious parody — it comes from droll readings of poetical ruminations by characters in dressing gowns, such as the ludicrously bewigged Nightingale (Scott Shepard), sashaying across the platforms led by a huge, erect rubber penis, which serves as a kind of divining rod leading him to the crotch of the newcomer Writer (Ari Fliakos). When his member wilts, we know Nightingale's days are running similarly short. We also know this from the escalating spew of blood he coughs up into a white silk hanky that flutters in the tuberculean breeze, while the Writer taps out his observations via a 21st-century keyboard (his notes sometimes appear on an upstage screen). With dexterity and intelligence, Kate Valk doubles as the cruel landlady, Mrs. Wire, and as a doomed tenant, Jane Sparks, lusting for her sexually ambivalent beau, Tye (Shepard again). And so on.
LeCompte provides richly textured curtains of aural and visual images accompanying the text, thanks in large part to the sound collage designed by Matt Schloss and Omar Zubair, and by Jennifer Tipton's lighting scheme. Some of the images are tiny but crucial. On a small downstage monitor, for example, a flame flickers. Later the image on that screen becomes water. This symbolically mirrors Mrs. Wire's attempt to squelch the debauchery in her flophouse by sending scalding water through her floorboards onto the rooms below. It's hard, just from the drama of that event, to pluck images of fire and water as elemental forces of life and death, yet it's there for the taking in Andrew Schneider's video design.
There's a balance of sorts between the glib and the faithful, with the former prevailing. These guys just can't quite contain their mockery, despite some heroic efforts to keep it in check. Which raises the paradox of doing a play about passion and despair while making fun of both. This is a very different paradox from that of doing a play through a radical interpretation of it. The Woosters are capable of using technological wizardry to soulful effect, as they did in Hamlet, also a play about mortality but with characters from ancient films of the play disappearing into static, like the rest of us. Here, that effect goes awry, in a deficit that has nothing to do with the decision to reconceive the text, but something to do with the tones within that concept. Traditional productions often suffer from the same.
For all the interpretive goofing with the play by the company, when I went back to read it, it was a story made familiar by the Wooster Group. Its production is as good a way as any to become acquainted with it. Probably better.
THE WOOSTER GROUP'S VIEUX CARRÉ | By TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, staged by ELIZABETH LECOMPTE and THE WOOSTER GROUP | REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn.; Wed.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. (213) 237-2800.