by Lynn on March 29, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Lighting by Jennifer Tipton. Sound by Matt Schloss, Omar Zubair. Video by Andrew Schneider. Wardrobe by Enver Chakartash. Starring: Ari Fliakos, Daniel Pettrow, Kaneza Schaal, Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk.

Plays at Harbourfront until March 31/12

The Wooster Group’s reputation for producing experimental theatre has preceded them. The American theatre group was formed in 1976. And while the company travels extensively, it rarely travels to Canada. This short stop to Toronto is part of World Stage 2012. I was glad to get the chance to see what all the fuss might be about. The Wooster Group mixes text and multi-media. They are fascinated by video, television and film, and mix it all in their version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré. For this project they were also interested in gay porn films of the 1970s.

Vieux Carré is one of Tennessee Williams’ early or late plays, depending how you look at it. He worked on it for years beginning in the 1930s until 1977 when it flopped after a few performances on Broadway. It’s a heavily autobiographical play about sexuality, coming out as a gay man, and wanting to be an artist and all the questions of self-doubt that entails.

It’s set in a flop-house in New Orleans, much like the one in which Williams began writing the play. The cast of characters include a fragile minded landlady named Mrs. Wire, a lascivious, phallus-wearing painter, an over-sexed artist named Jane Sparks and her irresponsible but sexually accommodating boyfriend, Tye. The narrator is the Writer who tells us of the goings on when we can’t see the obvious for ourselves. He flits about the stage tapping at the computer keyboard. If he’s tapping, gibberish is projected on the back wall. Sometimes the actual speech is projected.

While the Wooster Group speaks every word of Williams’ play, it’s the way they present it that is initially fascinating and eventually puzzling and distancing. Several screens are suspended above the stage; some forward and some at the back. One appears to be a small television screen up above the stage left and way at the back. There is a moveable video camera on a dolly on the stage. The main playing areas are two large metal platforms. One platform stage left moves back and forth. Each platform is strewn with clothes and other stuff.

Aside from the phallus-wearing painter, Tye and the Writer are bare chested and wear jock-straps of different configurations and design. Sometimes the women are in dresses, or flowing house coats or a bra (if that). Sex is one of the watchwords—not sensuality, but in your face sex.

As the play begins various scenes from films are projected onto the screens. I think I notice a muted interview with Sylvia Miles on the far television screen up and to the back but can’t be sure. A gay porn film is on another screen. Other films/videos are playing on the other screens. I am aware that when I am peering and peering at the various screens, trying to make head or tail of them, I’m taken out of the play. Perhaps this is the point?

The ‘acting’ of the various actors is not actually work that digs deep and delivers a full-bodied performance in the way we are used to. The delivery is usually a non-committal flat result. Not monotoned, but flat, perhaps reminiscent of a robot or computer generated voice. The Writer, as played by Ari Fliakos in particular is unemotional, inexpressive. One exception is the character of Nursie, friend to Mrs. Wire. Nursie is played by Kaneza Schaal. In that case her voice is a squeaky ‘up-speak’. Mrs. Wire and Jane Sparks are played by Kate Valk, desperate, dissolute, needy, intriguing. Tye, Jane’s boyfriend, and Nightingale, the phallus-wearing rutter, are played by Scott Shepherd. There is a lot of racing around and on the set but the actual delivery of lines has nothing to do with passion, or a traditional character.

Everyone is micked. Interestingly the sound is deliberately soft—muted at the beginning. Is that to ensure that we don’t talk? Make listening/hearing so difficult that to get what they are saying we have to be totally silent and still? Isn’t that a given with these kinds of esoteric shows? That we are there to listen? Hmmmm.

I can appreciate that the Wooster Group was influenced by the films of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, and porn films of the 1970s. I can appreciate that they wanted to put a new spin on a play by this celebrated, tortured playwright. The whole enterprise is directed and created with rigor by Elizabeth LeCompte. There are several lighting and sound effects that are split-seconds apart, followed by actors’ physical reactions. Even the bow at the end is contrived. The case stands looking at us, inexpressive, not bowing, and on a voice cue from the Writer, they all bow. Then up, looking at us inexpressive, another voice cue and another bow. Then off.

The whole production is created in such a way that the audience is kept at arm’s length and not engaged. They are bombarded by lights, visuals, grainy projections on the many and various screens suspended above the stage. That means we are distracted by them and not paying attention to the actors and what they are saying. Why? The result is cold, unengaging, and alienating because of the deliberate ‘dull’ voice work. And when one ponders and looks and tries to comprehend the meaning it all it ends in a flat line of boredom.

I am glad I saw the Wooster Group and what they call invention and experimental theatre. I have to ask, what the experiment is? But I must confess, I could not sit through this again, any time soon.

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