Written in the spring of 2007 for Gordon Rogoff’s Criticism seminar. I remember being particularly proud of this piece at the time, though Gordon seemed to think me too cowed by the Wooster Group’s reputation to venture a pan. -DL
The works of the Wooster Group, after lengthy cogitation, take on an immense stature in the mind, one that matches their impressive intellectual latticework. Seeing the work itself, however, is an arid, dry, and remote experience, enlivened by glimmers of unexpected comedy and beauty. The Woosters practice a theater of dislocation and quotation, employing a coterie of anti-theatrical devices to alienate details of performance and presentation. The viewer, as in the classical Brechtian mode, is jolted out of casual, culinary experience, usually by the use of the Group’s signature video cameras and screens, ringed around the stage with scientific precision, which manipulate the reality of the performances they simultaneously record. The Wooster Group’s deconstructive works consist of layers of reference, usually burying an unadorned, simply mimetic performance text (or document) underneath a slew of new, and foreign, signifying partners. Perhaps the most famous examples of this approach are Brace Up, their Japanese-inflected revisioning of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and The Emperor Jones, an excursion into the daunting waters of that great American white whale, Eugene O’Neill, as well as an attempt to explore a new onstage language for blackface performance in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century.
Of late, the Group’s mimetic interest has begun to eclipse the theater, encompassing the conventions of the cinema while continuing their theoretical fascination with live bodies in performance. 2004’s Poor Theatre, for example, was an evening of fascinating experiments and replications of Jerzy Grotowski’s adaptation of Wyspianski’s Akropolis, first performed by his Theatre Laboratory in 1964. In the original production, Grotowski fashioned a bitterly ironic world, reconfiguring Wyspianski’s symbolism of the Polish cathedral and the poet’s rumination on centuries past into a concatenation of insane, representative types of humanity located within that modern site of transit for cultures of millenia: Auschwitz. To accomplish this modernist allegory, Grotowski relied on a physical blending of metaphoric and mimetic representation, reflected in “the organic mask” of the performers, a grimace worn throughout the action that fashioned each of the performers into a representative stereotype. This organic mask was retained in Poor Theatre, but it crucially remained buried within the onstage landscape, projected through a video screen showing the Theater Laboratory at work more than forty years ago. As the performers in the Wooster Group sat alongside the flickering digital figures, attempting to replicate each movement with painstaking accuracy, I felt the chasm of the past and an overwhelming sense of loss. Screen and stage seemed to lock step for tantalizingly brief moments, as the current generation of the avant-garde groped blindly, externally towards the gestures of the past, attempting to excavate them from the grave of time, collective memory, and technology.
Looking backwards in order to orient the artistic gaze forwards is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and the Group has not abandoned their modus operandi. In their new production of that most towering of texts, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, the aesthetic gaze has been shifted upward and downward simultaneously. Literally, up from the basements of the late Eastern European underground to the footlights and red curtain (rendered in grainy black-and-white video) of the English West End stage, and downward aesthetically from a groundbreaking experimentation with visage and representation to a musty, popular style of performance characteristic of the post-World War II era. If Grotowski provided a formal point of entry and exploration in Poor Theatre, here the quotation of the buried source material is paramount, almost subsuming all other performance. The source material in question is a 1964 (interestingly, an exact contemporary of Akropolis) filmed version of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton and a cast of classically-trained, suitably anonymous English players. The Group reenacts almost the entire play with utter fidelity (and a few significant tweaks). Retained is the blocking, the choice of line cuts, even the minute facial and gestural movements of the onscreen performers. The performance onstage becomes mimesis squared, the imitation of an imitation of an action, unfolding like an intoned opera to a previously scored, through-composed soundtrack of speech and movement. This is mimesis taken to a logical extreme, a literal karaoke act of Burton & co.
The period reference is a subtly chosen and significant one, at once ironic and appropriately solemn. The actors’ intonations as they move around the stage strike the proper scientific note of qualified ham, particularly Scott Shepherd’s precisely antic approximation of Richard Burton, no stranger himself to the chewing of scenery. But 1964 was a year after another, American, monarch’s untimely death, and the stark onstage presentation, with painstaking accuracy, of the outmoded conventional language of the theatrical past begins to make the stage itself seem a sort of grave. Much as in Poor Theatre, the audience is reminded of the incredible distance between the evolving cultural languages of the past and present. The attendant interest of rediscovery tempered by a sense of loss and lostness.
As is inevitably the case with such a rigorous framing device, the cracks in the formal wall are of the most interest, and the most revealing as to possible intention. A terse technical note spells out one of the approaches behind the production by informing the audience of its unifying structural principle: “We have digitally reedited the Burton film so that the lines of verse, which were spoken freely in the 1964 production, are delivered according to the original poetic meter. In the projection on the back screen, some figures have been erased or obscured, and the duration of the play is shortened using fast forwards and jump cuts.”
This artificial imposition of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter on the Burton performance results in multiple layers of endlessly clarifying (and confusing) artifice in addition to the underlying text. The first layer is the text itself, partially obscured by the Burton performance (the second layer), which is then recorded and replayed (the third layer) after being digitally organized into an approximation of the original verse (the fourth layer), and imitated live by a group of actors (the fifth layer). The onstage action is thus an imitation of the digital editing of the recording of the Burton troupe’s performance of the play. To add to this anti-illusionistic muddle, the actors also physically imitate (as I realized after more than ten minutes of bewilderment at their seemingly random movements) the digital glitches they have inserted in the Burton film in order to make it scan, which are of two varieties: insertions of empty space between the ends of lines of verse, and subtractions of an actor’s pause coming in the middle of a line. Essentially, this approach reinscribes the artificiality of Shakespeare’s verse upon the all-too-human renderings of the Burton company. As with Grotowski, the Wooster Group is excavating layers of cultural meaning from the past with the aid of technology, finding beneath each crumbling crust another layer of artifice.
Like the structural complexity of the show, the Hamlet we see in this new production is a series of layers, a ghost of an echo. Not only is the figure literally divided between two visages (Shepherd’s and Burton’s), but he is also the figure most often “erased or obscured” on the playback coming from the screen comprising the stage’s back wall. These projections play in time with the digitally edited version playing on each of the small monitors, but the differences are multiple and significant. In an important soliloquy late in the action (“from now on my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth”), Burton is rendered onscreen in red and white, chalk-like silhouettes, a glowing exoskeleton; in the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes, the two figures turn into empty boxes, literalized graves dancing around the empty stage in a choreographed ballet of violence, in stark contradiction to the action onstage, which is fully animated and visceral, for one of the few moments of the night. This technique of erasure is memorably extended to the other characters, themselves ghosts. During her mad scene, Ophelia becomes a glowing, orange mass projected upon the screen, vividly overshadowing the action unfolding below her. In this production, the Wooster Group has made technological anti-illusionism itself into a kind of vivid postmodern expressionism, poetically evoking what the live theater no longer can.
The overall affect of the play, however, is not one of po-faced, Abstract Expressionist seriousness. It’s more like Hamlet’s greatest hits, remixed, abstracted, and reenacted. The first spoken words of the evening, after Scott Shepherd walks onstage and abruptly sits down, are “fast forward to the ghost,” an imperative which propels us into the layering action. For the comic bits embedded in the text (Polonius’s tedious monologue, Hamlet’s mad scenes), canned laughter is artificially inserted into the soundscape, assaulting the audience for daring to follow the revenge tragedy plot in a traditional sense, and daring us to laugh along. Hamlet and Polonius become stand-up comics, lip-synching their famous, well-known bits.
These playful hints of subversion blossom into full-blown pastiche in the two moments when the Burton film is entirely abandoned (for both, the word “UNRENDERED” amid a blue field appears on the big screen), both of which parodically savage contemporary, and cinematic, methods of playing Shakespeare. The first is Polonius’s lengthy instruction to Laertes, taking the form of Roy Faudree’s lip-synch to Bill Murray’s inept reading from Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film. More savage still is the insertion (played as a Quicktime file on Ari Fliakos’s Macbook) of the Player King’s monologue, performed with an excess of gusto by Charlton Heston, from Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 filmic adaptation, complete with inset cameos from Sir John Gielgud as Priam and Dame Judi Dench as Hecuba. The entire effect produced is one of utter absurdity, the jarring act of quotation highlighting the ham acting we take for granted as a classical rubric. As often in Wooster Group shows, the anti-theatrical strategy highlights the artificiality of theatre, making it feel pre-rehearsed, incidental, even ludicrous, the emphasis shifting from the plot to the interplay of past mimesis and present imitation, abstraction, and recapitulation. All of these past mimetic forms, methodically presented in their meager, naked forms, inevitably suffer.
Perhaps the most startling, as well as the most drastic, deviation from the Burton film is the treatment of the peripheral figure of Laertes. In his scene of instruction with Ophelia, and in his reaction to her death, Casey Spooner, who plays Laertes, either lip-synchs or sings (I couldn’t tell), with a complete lack of affect, brief musical refrains in the form of contemporary indie rock songs, sounding most like a theatricalized Pet Shop Boys. Unexpectedly, I found the pathos of these moments almost overwhelming, perhaps due to their stark difference from the rest of the production. (The contemporary, musical theme is echoed in the roles of the Players, who are costumed in the manner of Williamsburg hipsters, breaking with the predominating convention of stagy, Burtonesque garb.) This unexpected break into song – particularly in the scene of instruction between Ophelia and Laertes, and in his reaction to her death – most prominently recalls the sudden abandoning of melodramatic forms for opera at the end of the Mabou Mines production of Dollhouse. Comparison between the two productions is fruitful. Both revisit classical texts, locating them within a formerly popular but now forgotten style of performance, and both experiment with the rejection of that form for an even more thoroughly orchestrated one, one which sublimates sense to emotion: music. Unlike Lee Breuer’s operatic kitsch, however, the musical reference-point for LeCompte and the Wooster Group in Hamlet evokes no aesthetic past. The gaze is instead cast to the present and the potential future, and the world outside the theater walls. These song snippets, brief and blankly emotive, constitute the only non-referential segments of the production. Perhaps they are so short because the fearsome intellects behind the Wooster Group are wary of their latent Romanticism. They were the most memorable moments of the evening.