Ari Fliakos (right) and Kaneza Schaal in a scene from the Wooster Group’s “Vieux Carré”
Photo by Franck Beloncle
The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Vieux Carré’
Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte
Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York
Feb. 2-March 13, 2011
I always make it a point to see any work by the Wooster Group (in my opinion the greatest theater company in the world) at least twice. It’s so dense that the first time around you can’t possibly take in everything that’s going on visually, and it’s so original that something looks off or wrong at first, because they’re doing something you haven’t seen before, even in their own previous work. It’s easy to walk away from their rendition of “Vieux Carré,” possibly the best of Tennessee Williams’ late and decidedly inferior plays, thinking, “OK, so the Wooster Group marshaled all its fearless performing talent and technological wizardry in service of this grim, fragmented story about a bunch of lonely losers slobbing around a shabby New Orleans boardinghouse. Was it worth it?” But the second time around, you’re not tracking the narrative so closely so you can pay attention to the multiple layers on which director Elizabeth LeCompte is working her magic. (See video clip below.)
The Wooster Group’s stock-in-trade for 35 years has been mashing up classic plays with a variety of lowbrow cultural manifestations (drama/vaudeville, poetry/porn, opera/science-fiction). LeCompte is primarily a visual artist who couldn’t care less about dramatic literature, but she works with actors, and actors love characters and great writing and stories, so LeCompte assembles productions that let the actors do their thing while she folds them into a gigantic, dynamic sculptural collage. It may look like—and it’s often alleged that—she’s trashing T. S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov, Gustave Flaubert, Shakespeare, Racine, or whoever. Actually, though, she had made some of the most powerful, truthful, memorable distillations of “Our Town (Route 1 an 9),” “The Crucible (L.S.D.),” “The Three Sisters (Brace Up!),” and “Phèdre (To You, the Birdie!)” that I’ve ever seen. And when you look closely at what she’s done with “Vieux Carré,” you see that she has applied a huge amount of generosity and detailed dramaturgical attention to Williams, even if the production doesn’t look like any version of a Williams play you’ve ever seen. (Sadly, I can’t make it to Paris to see Lee Breuer’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which is reportedly equally adventurous.)
“Vieux Carré,” which opened on Broadway in 1977 and closed within a week, bears some family resemblance to “The Glass Menagerie,” if Tom Wingfield went directly from home with Amanda and Laura to New Orleans to launch his life not only as a writer but as a homosexual man. Like Tom, the autobiographical central character known as The Writer is both in the play and outside of it, trying to survive as a penniless, horny, lonely young artist while honing his ability to observe and capture in words human behavior in all its up-close squalid splendor. Scholarly reports suggest that the play, which Williams began in 1939, derives directly from notebooks the author kept when he lived at 722 Rue Toulouse. We meet the irascible landlady, Mrs. Wire; her elderly black housekeeper, Nursie; an elderly tubercular gay painter, Nightingale; Jane Sparks, a fallen woman from New York, and her junkie roughneck boyfriend, Tye; and two spinster sisters, Mary Maude and Miss Carrie, who struggle to maintain dignity while collecting their food from trashcans. The play veers wildly from snatches of dialogue overheard verbatim to philosophical eruptions (“Morals are a human invention that God ignores as much as we do”) to melodramatic boy-girl spats to Runyonesque yarns (the tale of how a gangster’s lupos ate the Champagne Girl) to poetic musing to farcical activity.
Most productions would try to blend these chunks into a homogeneous smoothie. The truth is that Williams’ plays have always contained strange, jagged bits of philosophy, poetry, and spiritual yearning. Overly naturalistic productions make that stuff stick out and look bad. I suspect directors think they’re doing him a favor by shaving off the most outrageous eccentricities and speeding over the incongruities. LeCompte doesn’t skip anything. She makes the chunks chunkier. She filters Williams through her own theatrical aesthetic, which is some mixture of Brecht’s anti-artifice, Picasso’s cubism gone multi-media, and McLuhan’s the-medium-is-the-message. The purposely ugly set consists of three gray platforms strewn with domestic debris, surrounded by the machinery of a sound studio: cameras, lighting instruments, and a dozen or more video screens of different dimensions, streaming live and pre-recorded images nonstop while a continuous sound score winds in and out of the dialogue.
The director has ideas about each character. Nightingale, for instance, is an incorrigible lech, so Scott Shepherd plays him in a ratty long-hair wig, soiled kimono, bloody handkerchief, and a strap-on dildo—he represents a jokey Chinese opera version of the ever-hard fertility god Priapus. (As he says to the Writer, “You’re sexual. I’m rapacious.”) Shepherd also plays Tye, who spends much of his scenes lying around in a stupor nearly naked. (In one scene, another actor wearing Nightingale’s wig attempts to grope Tye in his sleep.) Meanwhile, Nursie is played by a young African-American giantess (Kaneza Schaal) who speaks in a Valley Girl whine and appears onscreen sometimes in a pink wig and garish rainbow makeup (LeCompte’s homage to video artist Ryan Trecartin), sometimes as a blackface cartoon with only the whites of her eyes showing. Mary Maude and Miss Carrie appear only on screen, interacting with live actors. Kate Valk, the Wooster Group’s longtime leading lady, plays both Mrs. Wire (in steel-gray wig, glasses, and honking accent) and Jane (another iteration of Blanche who pronounces herself “frantic with loneliness”).
Ari Fliakos plays the most demanding role of The Writer, floating in and out of internal erotic reveries, interactions with his various desperate housemates, and sitting at his keyboard composing (theoretically) the scenes we are watching in an increasingly stoned, drunken, excited frenzy. We see what he’s pounding out on one screen as gibberish and on another as finished playtext (some of which is spoken simultaneously, and some of which only appears onscreen, in typical Wooster Group perversity). Fliakos, Shepherd, and Valk have been LeCompte’s tight team of rock stars for the last 10 years—they give her everything, and she knows how to use their virtuosity as well as their vulnerability. Besides the double-casting that lets them all show off, this production leans on the tender and animalistic erotic intensity of bodies moving closely in tight spaces for long periods of time. The Wooster Group takes the erotic elements of Williams’ play farther than anyone has ever dared to go. Fliakos’ Writer poses in a jockstrap to be sketched by Shepherd’s Nightingale, who follows him to bed and puts him to sleep with a handjob. The Writer can’t take his eyes off Tye’s exposed flesh when Jane invites him into her room, and for all Tye mistreats her, Jane is addicted to his body—Valk strokes Shepherd’s bare thighs and lovingly laps her tongue between his ass-cheeks.
While the ubiquitous screens reflect the technological present, LeCompte is very conscientious about setting the play in the 1970s, and to represent that era’s sexual ethos she draws on the films Paul Morrissey made for Andy Warhol: “Flesh,” “Trash,” and “Heat.” Scenes from these films play on screens high at the back of the stage, barely visible to the audience; I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the actors are also watching and imitating the film actors’ movements as they watch them in monitors we don’t see. Shepherd as Tye explicitly conjures Joe Dallesandro, especially in a scene where he studies himself in the mirror while changing his shirt, a red necktie around his head like a bandana. The most inspired and emotionally affecting aspect of the production is the way LeCompte stages the Writer’s erotic fantasies. A video monitor at the center rear of the playing space becomes a kind of memory screen on which vintage hardcore porn clips occasionally appear; Fliakos positions himself against a bedpost, and live video of him gets superimposed on the porn clip so he becomes the guy on the screen getting a blowjob, then giving one. It’s unsettling, arousing, magical—and then, with a sound cue and a lighting shift, the reverie evaporates, the screen clears, and we’re on to the next scene.
In an unusually candid interview with the Wall Street Journal, LeCompte shared the array of outside influences she brought to bear on her staging of “Vieux Carré.” I didn’t catch the Pink Floyd moments, but I couldn’t help registering the dark humor of having the Writer open a pill bottle with his teeth (Williams died in a New York hotel room in 1983 from accidentally inhaling a bottle-cap). In many ways, Tennessee Williams and this play seem like strange territory for the Wooster Group to cover—in a way too square, too mainstream, too florid. And yet that’s exactly what makes it a perfect match, as the results show. The two things LeCompte loves more than anything else are poetic allusiveness (delivered through every possible artistic medium) and chaos, and “Vieux Carré” has plenty of both.