Monday, March 24, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Unrighteous Deaths" (on John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer)

unrighteous deaths

by Douglas Messerli


Alice Goodman (libretto), John Adams (music) The Death of Klinghoffer / the production I saw was at Long Beach, California, the Terrace Theater, performed by Long Beach Opera Company on March 22, 2014


On October 7, 1985, four Palestinian terrorists, who had boarded the Italian cruise ship, Archille Lauro, docked outside Alexandria, Egypt, overtook the ship, turning off the ship’s engines and separated those tourists aboard into different groupings, including Jews and Gentiles.

     The terrorists, Ahmad Marrouf al-Assadi, Bassam al-Asker, Ibrahim Fatayer Abdelatif, and Youssef Majed al-Molqui were on a mission, organized by PLF leader Muhammad Zaidan, had, according to Zaidan’s widow, Reem al-Nimer, gone through several practice runs.

       The goal of these terrorists, in part in reaction to the Israel bombing in October 1985 of the PLO headquarters in Tunis, was to stay aboard the shop until it reached the Israeli port of  Ashdod, and perform a mass suicide killing of Israeli soldiers. A crew member, however, accidentally uncovered the terrorists and the group acted prematurely in taking over the ship.

      Using the ship’s captain as their go-between, the terrorist group attempted to receive further instructions from Tunis and elsewhere, and sought reaction from the world community which might help to make them heroes. But despite their proclamations that these men were not murderers, but were idealists, they chose, apparently at random, an elderly, wheelchair bound, Jewish man, Leon Klinghoffer, who had apparently spoken out against them, for murder. The terrorists shot him in the head and forced the ship’s barber to toss him and wheelchair overboard. Terrorists told his wife, Marilyn, that he had been taken to sick-bay, and it was only after the ship docked in Cairo that she was told of her husband’s death.
     Although United States President Ronald Reagan sent a US Seal Team and Delta Force to stand by for a possible rescue attempt, most the world refrained from acting, and it was not until the Palestinians threatened further lives that the captain was able to negotiate an agreement that the terrorists would be removed from his vessel, freed in Cairo.

      In the aftermath, US planes intercepted the plane carrying the hijackers, delivering them over to the Italian Carabinieri, disagreement between the Americans and the Italians  allowed others such as their leader, Muhammad Zaidan, to continue on their way. Egypt even demanded a US apology for forcing the plane off course. Although all the terrorists served some time, some escaped long imprisonments.

     A few years after these events, in 1987, shortly after the success of John Adams’ Nixon in China, director Peter Sellar suggested the Klinghoffer affair as a new subject matter, and Adams and his Nixon librettist, Alice Goodman, began working on the new opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera premiered in 1991 in Brussels with Sellars directing. Reviews were highly mixed, some describing it as a “revolutionary” opera, others chastising it for a cool and cruel meditation on, as Manuela Hoelterhoff suggested, “meaning and myth, life and death.”

     As new productions were performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and elsewhere criticisms grew, some interpreting a few of the Jewish figures aboard as representing negative stereotypes.

      Performances in Germany, and elsewhere followed, but productions in Glyndebourne and Los Angeles were canceled, the latter, in part, I presume through the outrage expressed by our friend Betty Freeman (see My Year 2009), a financial backer of Adams’ Nixon in China.       

      The production Howard and I saw yesterday at the Long Beach Opera, was based on Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production, directed by James Robinson. This production was the first appearance of the work in southern California.


      My reaction was also mixed, my negative feelings not based specifically on the equal balance of the representation of both the views of the Palestinians and the Israelis (or the Jews); frankly; as the opera suggests time and again, perhaps only if people can come together and discuss their opposing positions can any true peace be found. Nor was the highly unconventional structure of this opera, which one might describe as more an oratorio than a standard work of operatic narrative, a true problem. While there is no doubt that the series of tableaux Robinson and Adams have created makes the opera, at times, very static, as the choral masses, representing different viewpoints and tensions—The Chorus of the Palestinians, The Chorus of the Jews, The Night Chorus, etc—are presented through group friezes. And, yes, the interactions between characters, except during the highly dramatic interchanges between Leon Klinghoffer (a strong voiced Robin Buck) and the terrorists (Roberto Perlas Gomez, Alex Richardson, Jason Switzer, and Peabody Southwell), are mostly presented through individualized arias that allow for very little real interchange.

       Adams’ music, as always, is dark, intense, and swelling, alternating between tonal dissonance and lyrical passages that are almost always alive with awe and suspense. If nothing else the score of The Death of Klinghoffer, like his Nixon in China and the more recent The Gospel According to the Other Mary, represents masterful composition that justifies that his work be performed often. Even if the smaller Long Beach Opera orchestra could not quite recreate what one perceives as the density of Adams’ tonal range, one can only recognize that this is a work of art that deserves close listening.

      Some of the work’s arias, moreover, such as that performed by The Chorus of the Night, by Klinghoffer, the terrorist Mamoud, and, at work’s end, by the furiously accusatory Marilyn Klinghoffer (Suzan Hanson), represent extremely powerful operatic statements that transform this work. Presumably The Chorus of the Night, in its dark, clanging chordal structures and in the act of two groups of passengers building up a wall of suitcases between them, hints of the ethnic oppositions even aboard the Achille Lauro, differences presented in more comic moments played out by Danielle Marcelle Bond as an Austrian woman who hides in her stateroom quietly munching on chocolates and fruit while the others on deck are threatened and mocked and the empty-headed British dancing girl she later portrays, who perceives the whole even as a kind of school-girl game. 

      Klinghoffer’s aria, sung after his death, is an extremely gentle song, reiterating the first “Palestinian” chorus of the opera, which recounts the destruction of everything they (the Jews) had owned after World War II—the welters of the furniture, the destruction of tables and bureaus, or doors and drawers; but unlike the Palestinians, Klinghoffer suggests, although the Jews also had nothing left, they did not attempt revenge or revolution but moved on, creating new lives for themselves. It is a moving operatic statement, thoroughly delineating the reactions of the two cultures.

      On the other side, Mamoud describes, in a gruesomely literal aria how his mother was killed by the Israelis and how, discovering his brother’s severed head, he was able to close the tortured man’s eyes. (Discerning, a bit after the fact, what Mamoud had just conveyed, a woman on our loge suddenly cried out in shock).
    Marilyn Klinghoffer’s impassioned screed and plea, which ends the opera, is quite simply unforgettable, as out of unspeakable pain and silence, she suddenly rejects the ship captain’s empty condolences, shouting out that his suit smells of the Palestinians, and wailing out her own stupidity for not comprehending the significance the events that have just taken place. By the end of her powerful aria, she cries out for her own death, insisting that she should have died instead of her husband, that she “wanted to die.”*

       In short, Adams’ music is not the problem with the work. Even in Nixon in China, at moments I cringed at some of poet Alice Goodman’s language. Her mix of prosaic nonsense and abstract gobbledygook worked rather nicely, however, for the political double-speaking figures such as Nixon, Mrs. Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Mao. Here; however, with real people facing life and death dilemmas, Goodman’s abstract, new-age like tropes, often seem to have nothing to do with the issues the opera is attempting to engage. People sing of dissolution, of crescent-moons (yes, we recognize its symbolic status in the Arab culture), of sand, and flying frigates—and pigeons, terns, herons, hawks, etc. etc.. all presented as the expression of the ability to be truly be free in a world of borders. This may sound like a kind of poetic lyricism, but Goodman clearly cannot hear the music in what she is attempting to express, often creating impossibly long and illogically impacted sentences that must be quickly elided over in order to fit into the musical phrase.

     Some of this mix of abstraction and the ordinary achieves its goal, as when, for instance, at the very moment her husband is being shot, Marilyn Klinghoffer tells a friendly woman about the new advances in hip and knee replacement, while discussing her husband’s paralysis as being something doctors no longer want to deal with, describing them as men and women busy “curing headaches instead of strokes.” But time and again Goodman’s meandering linguistic tunnels take the opera’s characters nowhere, as if they were speaking out of some moon-induced lunacy instead of the world which they exist. And this tends to make Adams’ work far more elliptical and drains it of his music’s inspired emotional poignancies.

       Through Goodman’s libretto the real-life death of an elderly Jewish man by murderous terrorists, no matter how holy their cause, becomes a kind of dreamy fable that diffuses dramatic encounters, turning it, just as Hoelterhoff argues, into a meditation of abstract concerns which cloak even the very title with good intentions instead of a solid look into the heart of good and evil.

      Interestingly enough, just the weekend before, Howard and I had attended another opera, Billy Budd, which takes place entirely at sea, wherein we also witness an unrighteous murder of someone on board. In both cases, the ships’ captains are particularly culpable, in Vere’s case because of his refusal to mitigate human justice over the law, in the case of the Achille Lauro because the captain refuses to perceive himself as morally responsible for his crew and passengers. Although, like Vere, he is a moral man, even going so far as to insist that the terrorists kill him instead of his passengers, he sees himself more as a hotelier among his crew of barbers, masseurs, shopkeepers, cooks, and servants than as a legal entity. He is a conciliator instead of a leader, a fact which Marilyn Klinghoffer ultimately perceives. Melville clearly was focused, far more specifically, on that very issue: who and what is good, who and what is evil, without providing easy answers. Neither Billy nor Leon Klinghoffer can be saved by the outside world. But the terrible vision of Klinghoffer’s wife reverberates with the Nazi horrors of World War II: how many people must die before the world acts? Must 100 people be killed aboard, she asks? Or millions, history might echo?  How can you talk with a people who cannot even acknowledge that history itself? Although she cries out for death, it is quite apparent that she and numerous others have already died for their beliefs, for their very existence, long before her.

     And so too, alas, have many been killed from the opposing sides. The tragedy is that there can be no end to this improbable stand-off of suffering communities. There can be, unfortunately, no easy conciliation between the escalating wars of hate, a tragedy repeated over and over again in the history of our operatic archive.


*One of the most grotesque and painful ironies of this event—although not mentioned in the opera—is that after the events on the Achille Lauro, some accused Marilyn herself as having killed her husband in order to receive his insurance. Later, Muhammad Zaidan confirmed that Klinghoffer had, in fact, been killed by the terrorists.


Los Angeles, March 23, 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "The Darkness Understands and Suffers" (On Britten's Billy Budd)

the darkness understands and suffers

by Douglas Messerli


E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier (libretto, after Herman Melville’s book), Benjamin Britten (music) Billy Budd / 1951, the production I saw was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a production by the LAOpera, March 16, 2014, 2:00 p.m.


My companion Howard insists that the first time we heard Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd was either through a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast or through the loan of a recording from our beloved neighbor, Bob Orr (see My Year 2007), but I have no memory of this incident. The first time I recall hearing music from the Britten production was, strangely enough, in the public square of Ghent in Flanders, in front of the great cathedral there, were a group of performers were gathered singing the sometimes meaningless chantey-like songs from the opera (see My Year 2011). When I asked my friend, Tom van de Vorde, what was going on, he told me that they were advertising a production of Billy Budd at the local opera house. Had I been dressed properly and had planned for more than a day to trip to that city, I would have quickly scooped up tickets and attended the event. For years, I’d wanted to see this significant opera.

      Now that I have seen a production, the other afternoon, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where the LA Opera performs, I can claim that it truly is a great work, and this production certainly did it justice, and director James Conlon’s LAOpera orchestra, in this production, truly reached the heights. Our amazement, accordingly, that the house for this last performance was only partially full. As I told Howard as we exited, “Why isn’t this a sell-out performance? Everyone might enjoy this opera!”


      True, Melville’s often metaphoric statement of Goodness and Evil may seem to some as a 19th century conceit. And certain of its symbolic images, Billy’s Christ-like crucifixion and John Claggart’s devilish (in this version, quite similar to Othello’s Iago) machinations may seem to some as clumsily heavy-handed.

      Britten’s lush and beautiful score, moreover, is far more complex than many even more radical operas; except for Billy’s forlorn confrontation of death after he has been convicted of Claggart’s murder, Captain Vere’s arias of tortured memory, and Claggart’s declaration of the destruction of Billy, there are few moments in this work when we are presented with conventional arias or even long passages of musical characterization. And even in some of the passages I noted, Britten’s orchestration seems to move in a direction other than the line of soloists. Billy Budd is a grand chorale work, dependent upon its powerful choruses of sailor chanteys and work-based sufferings—an opera of collaboration instead of individuation.

      Another problem for many opera-goers, although not as obvious in this particular production, is that Britten’s work, despite the composer’s attempts to defuse some of his librettist’s, E. M. Forster’s intentions, is still a work of seething male sexuality, in particular a world of closeted—and sometimes not so closeted—male lust for other males. The very situation of being aboard H. M. Indomitable for its screw is to be squeezed into dark quarters with other sexually pent-up men, all them lonely, oppressed (and in the case of their impressment into service) repressed, even tortured, literally dripping with testosterone and sweat while waiting for action—an attack against the French, a push against each other, or simple bodily release.

     Into this hot-house environment, the beautiful and handsome (a quality by which even Claggart and Vere describe him) Billy Budd (played by the appealing Baritone Liam Bonner) is thrown, recognized almost immediately not only for his good looks but his utter innocence and his goodness. You can almost hear the denizens of the ship slurping their mouths in desire. And within a few moments of the opera, everyone aboard seems to have fallen in love with Billy, describing him in ways that lovers might describe their beloved: Baby Budd, Beauty, and other such appellations. As much as Britten was determined to establish his Billy as a symbol of goodness and faith, Melville’s Billy remains, as in Ustinov’s film,  essentially a corporeal manifestation of what these men are truly seeking: an absolutely tempting and galvanizing male specimen. If Billy represents the foolish innocent of Christ, in this work, no matter how one might temper it—a fact that Ustinov’s film absolutely flaunted through the stunning looks of its male lead (Terence Stamp)—Billy is a sexual object, which the Master-of-Arms (his title itself working as a kind of unintentional pun), Claggart (Greer Grimsley) cannot but perceive. Although, Britten and Forster ultimately attempted to downplay this aspect of the work (and Los Angeles LA Opera director Conlon carefully tiptoed around these issues in his before pre-production talk) most opera-viewers today—in a society radically different today than Britten’s homophobic 1951 British world, wherein homosexuality was still punishable by imprisonment—recognize that Billy Budd is a work never far from a blatant expression of homosexuality, an issue which, even within today’s more tolerant views may lead some opera-goers to feel uncomfortable with it or, at the very least, dissociated from it.

      Although Claggart may be the utter apotheosis of evil, a devil who—as opposed to Genesis  which claims that God “divided the light from the darkness,” suggesting that the darkness cannot know the light, reiterated in the New Testament John I, 1: “And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” —sings that “the darkness understands and suffers” the light. If this is surely as close as we can get to Satan, a figure who refuses to be “separated” from what he can have no part of, it is also the desperate cry of a man who, sexually closeted, who cannot possibly have what he might desire. In Billy’s innocence, his goodness, and his beauty, Billy lies outside of Claggart’s reach, while all the others upon the boat take pleasure in his company; and this very fact drives the sadomasochistic officer to attempt to destroy the young new foretopman.    

          Billy, in his role as the high climber of the ropes, is able, almost like an angel (another of his appellations) to fly higher and see farther than his peers, giving him a glorious vision of reality that none of the fellow-sailors—mostly forced to hover on ship board or below—can perceive. In Britten’s vision, unlike Melville’s or even Ustinov’s film, Billy has a kind of Christian view, a vision of a “ship in anchor forever,” an end of the voyage in life that might suggest a peaceful view of heaven. But in Billy’s innocence, Melville never posits a religious viewpoint for Billy nor the idea of a Christian afterlife. Billy is of his time, a man who is joyful just to be alive—again the very antithesis of Claggart—who in his simplicity never aspires to a heavenly vision; his view of the afterlife (as in his before-death admission) is the oozy slime of the sea and the life within it. If he becomes a kind of Christ, it is in the vision of the others, not his own.

      Although mutiny, the mutiny of previous ships such as the Nore and others, is very much behind the kind of hysterical behavior of The Indomitable’s officers, it is, despite their abasement and abuse, not in the sailors’ vocabularies, particularly not in Billy’s comprehension, who only wants to bravely serve the captain, Starry Vere. But it is, ultimately, that hysteria, that fear of the officers—of the British upper class in general—that creates, at least in Britten’s telling of the tale, the very predicaments of which they are most entangled. Neither Melville nor the Ustinov film suggest that any of the sailors conceived of a possible mutiny, but in Britten’s version, after the hanging of Billy, the whole cast heave forward in explicable growls toward the officers as if threatening them in a way the ruling class always foresaw. It is a powerful moment which not only represents possibly mutiny, but the pent-up sexual energy and hate of every man on board, as if Billy’s death has released some vast, howling banshee force of love and hate that had been kept at bay by the man himself. And it is particularly indicative of Vere’s own reiteration that “every man on board knew” we could have made another judgment, to have found Billy innocent of the murder he was fated to enact. Vere knows also that he might have not only served as witness, but could have interceded against the conventional and unfair articles of war which he upheld.

Despite Vere’s own ability to absolve himself from his actions, I think it is difficult, given the British officers’ preoccupations with class, social distinctions, enslavement, xenophobia, and homophobia to easily exonerate Vere and his officers of their behavior. Of course, we must leave the theater, each of us, with our own conclusions. And that is the rub.

      In the end I had to admit, at a dinner at our beloved Taylor’s steak house with Howard after, that although Billy Budd is an opera which anyone might enjoy, many might find its complexities of musical, symbolic, and thematic overlayings as difficult to penetrate. The audience with whom I shared this masterwork, and who had remained after intermission, grandly applauded this exiting production as Howard and I did, sharing the delight of Britten’s provocative masterwork.         


Los Angeles, March 17, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Between Duty and the Devil" (on Massenet's Werther)

between duty and the devil

by Douglas Messerli

Edouard Blau, Paul Millet, and Georges Hartmann (libretto, based on Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), Jules Massenet (music), Richard Eyre (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Werther / 2014 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Werther makes it more clear than ever that Werther (the remarkable Jonas Kaufman) and his beloved Charlotte (Sophie Koch) belong together, while standing apart from the others of the work. As my spouse Howard commented, both are costumed in clothes—mostly gray with a white bodice in Werther’s case, and pearl-white or white with a dark overcoat in Charlotte’s—that stand in opposition to the others of the work. Although the melancholic Werther is willing to risk everything for love, he is, nonetheless, like her, a man who adores children and believes in duty. Indeed, his absolute love for Charlotte is based on her conventional values, her determination to care for her brothers and sisters after their mother’s death and to remain true to her promise to her mother that she will marry Albert, a kindly militarist, who by opera’s end all but accuses his wife of unfaithfulness, forcing her to herself send the pistols for which Werther has asked in order to kill himself since Charlotte has refused to give into his sexual assaults.

     What became more apparent than ever in this production is that, as opposed to the conventionality of both Werther and Charlotte, most of the rest of the opera’s figures—despite their outward celebration of the local parson and clichés of cultural obedience—are far more willing to bend to the joy of daily pleasures. Several times in Werther, characters sing out in praise of Bacchus, particularly early in the opera when we first meet The Bailiff’s (Jonathan Sommers) friends, Johannn (Philip Cokorinnos) and Schmidt (Tony Stevenson), who while mocking Werther’s seriousness, themselves sing of the wine and crayfish they are looking forward to at the local pub. Despite the Bailiff’s more serious demeanor and his insistent demand that his children perform adequately a Christmas carol he currently teaching them, he too speaks of Bacchus and, through his daughter’s Sophie’s encouragement, is easily convinced to join his friends at the pub.
     Although both Werther and Charlotte may see the children as “angels,” the children themselves act up and mock several of their superiors behind they backs. Only in Charlotte’s gentle care to they truly act angelically.
    Charlotte’s 15-year old sister, Sophie, is a pleasant and gentle girl who, when Charlotte is away at the ball, lovingly cares for his siblings; yet she has her own way of not taking things seriously, at the pastor’s wedding anniversary party singing of the joyfulness of the day and weather, while flirtatiously inviting Werther to dance with her at the celebration. In Act III she, similarly, attempts to cheer up her distraught older sister, who has now realized through Werther’s anguished epistles how much she is in love with him rather than her often fatuous and inattentive husband, Albert (David Bižić).

    In such a bacchanalian world of wine, women, dance and, in Sophie’s case, just the joy of living, the two heroes of the piece become tragic representatives of conventional faith and duty, a fact that, by opera’s end Charlotte has come to realize—that forged her with chains to Werther from the first time she set eyes upon him. Two of Werther’s most touching songs—his Act II disquisition on God’s response if he were to commit suicide (Werther’s version of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be,” “Lorsque l’enfant revient d’un voyage”) and his stunningly sad recitation of one of his translations of Ossian—center on death, as does Charlotte’s Act II aria (“Va, laisse couler mes larmes”), a prayer for moral fortitude. While the others dance around them with the zest of living beings, these two suffer, mostly in silence except to the opera’s audience, unable to survive in the devil’s bacchanal of daily life. Although seen as everyone else as models of moral certitude, they are, in the real world in which they are forced to live, the most tenuous of beings. Is it any wonder, then, that they end their lives in a passionate embrace and kiss that resembles the high Romantic sacrificial pattern of “love, death, and transfiguration.” Although Massenet’s work is far more intimate and modest that Wagner’s great Tristan and Isolde, it is, at its heart, a similar tale, a tale of two lovers doomed by social and cultural conventions they feel are beyond their control, while the others, those on the side of the devil—according to Werther and Charlotte’s way of seeing things—are free to enjoy their lives and survive.   
       As the great Jonas Kaufman suggested during an intermission discussion of this HD presentation of the Met production, in this pre-Freudian drama, there is no way that Werther or Charlotte might see the error of their ways, to psychologically comprehend their entrapment in the dichotomy of “Totem and Taboo.” The problem for modern audiences, accordingly is to try to keep Werther (and also Charlotte) as credible figures, despite their manias, with whom we can identify. Both Kaufman (in one of the best operatic performances of the year) and Koch accomplished that!
      Unfortunately in the last moments of Werther’s death, when the two sing of their passion and Werther is transfigured by the sound of the children singing, once again, “Noel Noel Noel,” the sound of the broadcast disappeared. Several members of the contemporary audience with whom we shared the theater suddenly became like children, shouting out for others to sing, or, in the most horrific of experiences, two elderly women stupidly commenting in loud voices on the slow death of Werther: “Is she dead too? Oh, he’s still living. She’s covered with blood. Oh he’s still singing. Is she going to shoot herself?” etc. etc. Most of the audience members tried simply to imagine the emotional impact by following the subtitles, but for these adult-children the grand opera had simply fallen apart, the credibility that Kaufman had so brilliantly accomplished completely disappearing from the art. At times like these, one can only wonder why some people had been attracted to such a memorable opera broadcast in the first place, leaving the theater as they cried out, “I want my money back!”

Los Angeles, March 16, 2014
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2014).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Douglas Messerli | Shakespeare as Ceremonial Dance (on the Wooster Group's "Cry, Trojans")

shakespeare as ceremonial dance

by Douglas Messerli

William Shakespeare (as adapted by the Wooster Group and Elizabeth LeCompte) Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida) / the performance I saw as on March 2, 2014 at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (Redcat) in the Disney Music Hall.

The Wooster Group’s production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida began as a joint project between the American experimental group—whose major projects have deconstructed and recontextualized classic works—and the Royal Shakespeare Company of England, who basically present more standardized productions of the Bard’s work. For the London production, the Wooster players created a text, using Shakespeare’s language, which featured the Trojans as a native American tribe, while the RSC concentrated on the Greeks using a more formalized Shakespearian approach. The two worked separately, coming together just days before the production, purposely clashing in styles and approaches, particularly in the second part, where Cressida is given over the Greeks and the two sides erupt into battle.


      I might have certainly enjoyed that pairing, delighting surely in the way the two might play off against each other. The version I saw in Los Angeles the other night, however, was, perhaps, a far more coherent rendering, performed by only the Wooster Group, with the company playing both the Trojans and the Greeks, representing the former with elaborate costumes and plastic appendages designed by artist Folkert de Jong and the latter in cowboy-like masks while speaking in a drag-version of Aussie-British English. The Trojans are clearly at the center the group’s reconfiguration of the piece, and, obviously, some of what might have resulted in clashes of outlandish proportions had been tamed by the work’s new focus.

      The Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNaulty—usually an admirably intelligent and reliable theater critic—wrote, in a piece titled “Not great Wooster or Shakespeare,” that the new version did not work for Shakespeare traditionalists nor for those who love the New York group’s sendups of classic theater pieces. He felt the work was filled with meaningless stereotypes and that it lacked technological brilliance of their other productions:

 The company has made its name by reflecting canonical texts

 in a multimedia fun house mirror. Normally the stage is awash

 in bleeping technology, but perhaps in recognition of the fact that

 our lives are now inundated with screens, director Elizabeth

 LeCompte has chosen to keep the video relatively low key.


     Even if the four small video screens used here may not exactly light up the stage the way they did in the group’s Vieux Carré, for example, they were crucial to the meaning and substance of the Wooster’s final version. Some may have simply perceived the screens filled with strange Eskimo-like representations or as camp images of Hollywood films. But, in fact, they were carefully chosen to parallel the seemingly Amazon-like tribal images of the Trojans. And, most important, nearly all the “choreographical” movements of LeCompte’s actors were determined by the relation of the figures on these small screens. The arguments between Hector (Ari Fliakos) and Troilus (Scott Shepherd), the significant movements of the Trojan warriors are almost all “stolen” from the actors in the Inukitut-language Canadian film, made by Zacharias Kunuk in 2001, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (ᐊᑕᓈᕐᔪᐊᑦ), itself taken from an oral tradition of Inukitut myths.* The special relationships between Troilus and Cressida (Kate Valk) are borrowed from Eliza Kazan’s movie Splendor in the Grass of 1961, paralleling the movements of the forlorn love relationship between Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.  At other moments I caught what I believe were scenes from East of Eden and, as Cassandra (Suzy Roche) sings out her prophetic warnings the videos center on a scene of a young girl singing, which vaguely reminds me of images of a long-ago witnessed clip of a child-like Dianna Durbin singing before an audience. The fact that, at one point, the Trojans sit about the campfire on colorful basketballs, momentarily tossing them at one another, hints of the comic sequence from Airplane! wherein the white Peace Corps worker (Robert Hays) claims to have taught the isolated Amazon natives with whom he has been stationed to play basketball; the camera observes the tribe on the court (the tribe being performed by the Harlem Globetrotters). In short, if the Wooster Group uses stereotypical elements it is not without humor or, in other cases, is based on actual native myths. If the Greeks seem less interesting in this production it is simply because that they represent the conquering classicists who are not engaged in totemistic behavior. It’s clear that the Wooster company prefers the lost culture.          

While the Trojans are bound by clan traditions (represented here by films relating to that oral tradition and by Hollywood-structured emblems, our own clan-like constructions, which we do not even recognize as such), the Greeks are an individualistic culture of art, poetry, music, etc. Strangely enough, however, in the end it is the Trojans who are willing to fight alone to their deaths, while Achilles (also portrayed by Scott Shepherd), in his rage over his male lover’s Patroculus’s death, orders his men to ambush Hector, killing him like a gang of thugs of before they drag away his dead body behind Achilles’ horse.

      While this may not be the most successful of the many Wooster Group plays I have enjoyed over the years, it is not without its own profound overlaying of images which create a density of meanings and cultural significance that adds to and illuminates the original Shakespeare play.

      In the end I feel this work displayed a new subtlety in the group’s development, depending less upon ironic pointing and more on the ability of its audience to focus less on story and language—while, however, retaining both—than on ceremonial-like movements of its actor’s bodies, as if this play had been relocated into a world of dance, movements represented on the special arc-like paintings the figures drew throughout upon the stage’s floor.        


Los Angeles, March 4, 2014

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2014). 

*Fortunately, I attended this performance with my friend Deborah Meadows, who immediately recognized the Inukititut film by Zacharias Kanuk; I, in turn, told her about the images from the Kazan film. Unfortunately, the company did not list their video sources on the program nor on their web-site.