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.

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