Extra! Extra! The Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carr
Tue Mar 8 2011
Photograph: Paula Court
As anyone whom I've ever cornered at a party can attest, keeping my theatrical opinions to a tidy 300 words is a nigh-herculean effort. Boy, I can just go on. And while I've already hit the print maximum in my recent five-star review of The Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carr, I find I simply cannot contain myself. There are a few key questions that I'm still asking after the show is long over—for instance, considering that my star rating means "Go see it, you fools! There are few things out there this good!," why do I have such complicated feelings about the production?
And hey, the Wooster Group has brought this on itself. More than any other company, the aesthetic it espouses encourages dialectical thinking. Just as the performers—speaking one text but hearing another through their earpieces—vibrate between influences, so too are their audiences oscillating through expectation and realization, comfort and bewilderment, pleasure and unease. The back-and-forth is all part of the Wooster Group tango.
Since I saw the show last week, I've heard a few people wax less than enthusiastic about the work, often citing contradictory reasons as they do. The first complaint is that the Group is in a rut; it keeps making work the same way. The patented form (taking a classic text and crashing it into a video influence) has grown too predictable. The second complaint is a wish that the group would make a work more like one of its earlier pieces. House/Lights or To You, The Birdie! often get the nod, which are works that were made in just this text-on-text tradition. Do we want it to change? Can we stand it when it does?
The Wooster Group, despite having changed radically from its early work, has embraced a consistent aesthetic for the last many shows. When you walk in, you see the same wires and televisions, the same artfully hip mess, and you automatically slide the work into a context consisting solely of other Wooster Group shows. One neat trick the company sometimes employs is making a new show while rehearsing on the set of the old one—no wonder, then, that its lifelong output actually feels like stages in one extremely long thought. I admit, in a list of its pieces, I would put Vieux Carr behind my favorites, but ahead of, say, its Hamlet. Put Vieux up against the other shows currently selling tickets, though, and I give it all of my most heartfelt gold stars.
At Vieux Carr, another thing that seemed to throw fans of the group was the show's surprisingly faithful adherence to the Williams text. We watch scenes in order; despite cross-casting, everyone sticks to their own characters. Even the elided sections exist—just too sped up to comprehend. The requisite cross-matrixing influence sits on high video screens, easy for us to ignore and mostly pointed toward the cast. These are '70s Joe Dallesandro skin flicks, as far as I could tell at the time (click here to get Adam Feldman's fuller list of the intertextual materials), and there did seem to be physical and vocal echoes of that Warhol favorite's diffident, hypersexed mien.
More than usual, though, these influences sank into the sand of the dominant text. The actors wear earpieces, and they use line readings from the films to inform their own performances. But this time the technique stayed private, and my awareness of it evaporated in the fug of disconnection already in Williams's play. There's less Woosterian collision here; there is only melting. And after having watched many a spiky Wooster performance, this new, more osmotic sense of penetration felt genuinely new.
My own push-me-pull-you experience throughout the piece had to do with my very great affection for the Pearl Theatre Company's version of Vieux, one directed two years ago by the deft Austin Pendleton. That production still stands as one of my favorite all-time experiences—it was Williams with a nearly religious sense of grace, perhaps the only kind of sermon that I have ever fully believed in. Few people who like Wooster shows also like the relatively buttoned-up Pearl shows, and vice versa, but for those lucky enough to catch both productions, a conversation seems to spring up, spanning the great distance between the two aesthetic programs. (Where the Woosters find dankness and libidinous ooze, the Pearl found something tissue-delicate.) At times, I could not reconcile them, particularly when I missed the Pearl production's far greater tenderness. And then suddenly, it would seem like two lenses had snapped into place over my eyes—and the play would come abruptly into focus through the layered films of Woosterian jelly and remembered, Pendletonian gauze.