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Some sort of awakening
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Some Sort of Awakening
House/Lights, adapted from Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, The Wooster Group at The Performing Garage, New York; Cab Legs (A Work in Progress), directed by John Collins, head writer/co-director Steve Bodow, Elevator Repair Service, Performance Space 122, New York; Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, written and directed by Moises Kaufman, Tectonic Theater Project, Minetta Lane Theater, New York; Shopping and Fucking, a play by Mark Ravenhill, directed by Gemma Bodinetz and Max Stafford-Clark, The New York Theatre Company, New York. All performances from the 1997–98 season.

As if laying a critical foundation for the discussion of modern theatre (I speak, of course, of true modern theatre, as opposed to the Corporate Real Estate Conglomerate Production), Octavio Paz wrote, “In order to decipher a hieroglyph, a writer’s only recourse is signs (words) that immediately form another hieroglyph.” Conversely, Henry Miller wrote that “we realize that the function of the theatre is not to hand us back the everyday familiar reality, but to give us intimations of a super reality which knows no bourne.” Both statements—naked, fecund with awareness—offer us translations of the theatrical statement. In short, if I may: theatre should distill the arrangement of languages and bring us a momentum of artistic reverie or exaltation. By its very nature theatre should communicate and transcend; the banal becomes glorious, the heroic tragic and suspect.

Figure 1. Kate Valk in House/Lights. Photo: Mary Gearhart, courtesy The Wooster Group.
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Figure 1.

Kate Valk in House/Lights. Photo: Mary Gearhart, courtesy The Wooster Group.

Figure 2. Cab Legs, Elevator Repair Service. Photo: Alison Cornyn, courtesty Elevator Repair Service.
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Figure 2.

Cab Legs, Elevator Repair Service. Photo: Alison Cornyn, courtesty Elevator Repair Service.

The Wooster Group’s production of House/Lights, an adaptation—or deconstruction—of Gertrude Stein’s work Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights at the Performing Garage, offers a fine example of Paz’s pronouncement on the hieroglyph. Much acclaimed for their bold tradition of experiment, The Wooster Group’s strength lies in collaboration, a collaboration not only within the troupe itself, but also with the audience, rapt in the depth of performance and/or confusion. In art, absurdity is a grand, though still dangerous undertaking; the seeming obtuseness of it all, if used with indignity, may bring us into the fold of the artist, the challenge to the audience [End Page 40] making for a pure creative union. However, if the effect fails at some level, the work presented may degenerate into self-absorbed ramblings, a sad mire of convoluted phrasings, and, in performance, an over-analytical motion of dancing and settings. To The Wooster Group, the absurd, even at its bluntest, most obtuse, is merely part of the whole, a part of their history of performance and of continuing experimentation which they share with their audience.

The Wooster Group inhabits the same continuum as the Latin American writers of the earlier part of the century. Tablada, Vitier, Vallejo, Neruda and later, of course, Paz, show us an example of artists transcending a language and tradition. These writers could be called “Post-European,” in that their work was an effort to go beyond the European masters and to create forms of their own, signatures not dependent on classical norms. The beauty of The Wooster Group is that they, like these writers, go so far beyond what we generally relate to as theatre, destroying to create, directing the viewer towards a position beyond rectilinear time and place. And here they challenge the most important mother of all the modernists, Gertrude Stein herself, the embodiment of Anglo-American experimentation.

As directed by co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte, House/Lights, with its aggressively sculptural set by Jim Findlay, brings together dance, literature, video, and installation to challenge the linear mind. The work may be appreciated on many levels (especially the performance of Kate Valk as Elaine/Faustus), but the point is not to dislocate any single aspect of the work. An initial denial or acceptance of the work is irrelevant. For instance, much of the choreographic movement is, in fact, quite childish (not childlike), but this is merely an aspect of the experimental format...