“A landscape,” wrote Gertrude Stein, “is such a natural setting for a battlefield or a play that one must write plays.” If she had known the Wooster Group’s work, she would have added, “And those plays will be battlefields.” The Wooster Group doesn’t perform plays, it challenges them, letting no artistic gesture pass without at least a flicker of raised eyebrow or a deadpan line reading to call it into question. Few theaters could function in such a combative atmosphere; the miracle is that TWG’s painstaking methods and intellectual scruples produce a performing style that not only embodies their conflicted responses successfully, but ends by enhancing your respect for the text they’ve attacked.
So it was with O’Neill, and so it is with the woman whose playwriting would seem superficially to be his polar opposite. Gertrude Stein wrote Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights in 1938, during the somber period of philosophic questing that also produced her great play Listen to Me and that astonishing treatise, The Geographical History of America; the three works have many motifs in common. Stein had been an avant-gardist, ridiculed by the general public, sustained by family money, and defended by a coterie. Then she had become a bestseller and a world-class public figure, a status she would soon exploit by making herself a sort of topsy-turvy war hero.
Written as an opera libretto for the English composer Gerald Berners, Faustus pours Stein’s 20th-century preoccupations into the old tale in ways that turn it upside down. Her Faustus might even be said to be the 20th century: He’s invented electricity, and thereby altered the whole nature of life. To do so, he’s sold his soul to the Devil, but without being certain that he had one to begin with. At the end, when he decides he’d rather go to hell than stay on earth as it exists in this altered form, he has to reclaim his soul and then damn it (“Kill anything,” the Devil advises him) in order to get there. His chosen victims are a little boy and a dog, who are seen with him whenever he appears, and there are repeated hints that the boy is not a separate entity but Faustus’s image of his own boyhood. (The Geographical History does repeated riffs on the trick question, “What is the good of being a little boy if you are going to grow up to be a man?”)
Apart from the public, which annoys him equally whether prying or praising, what befuddles Faustus is the opera’s female presence, a mystical, passive-aggressive, one-woman compendium named “Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel.” The name reaches back to Goethe, by way of Gounod, encompassing Faust’s worldly love and the ideal beauty who makes him wish time could stop, along with the ill-fated childhood love of memory (as in Poe’s “Annabel Lee“) and the contemporary beauty about whom Stein was concurrently struggling to complete a novel (Ida, said to have been inspired by the Duchess of Windsor). Bitten by a viper, Marguerite Ida is cured by Faustus and becomes an object of worldwide fame. Determined to get her attention, Faustus makes himself damnable and has the Devil make him young, but learns too late that, in Marguerite’s eyes, his age and soullessness are the salient features of his persona. When she refuses to believe that he is Faustus, he descends into eternal darkness (crying, “Little boy and dog let me be“). The Devil, dragging him down, complains sardonically about being “always deceived”— presumably by the failure of intelligent men to save themselves from his clutches.
Against the jingly, faux-naïf lines of Stein’s austere parable, the Wooster Group sets a 35-year-old classic of unintentional camp trash, Olga’s House of Shame, a softcore bondage flick in which dominatrix Olga subjugates a series of young women for what appear to be increasingly lame motives. Passages from the film— sometimes collaged with more familiar cinematic images— are played out on the set’s video monitors; passages of its dialogue, in natural-voice miking, crop up in the spoken text, carefully set apart from Stein’s words, always given reverberant sonic echoes. The set’s assemblage of techno-clutter is dominated by four huge, clear glass bulbs on flexible cables, symbols of the electricity Faustus has invented.
Doubling as Faustus and Marguerite, Kate Valk also plays the film’s heroine, Elaine, an underling who is caught double-crossing Olga, mends her ways after discipline is administered, and ultimately rises to become Olga’s second in command— and potential rival. The malevolent Olga (Suzzy Roche) naturally also plays Mephisto, two goatish horns curving gently up from her luxuriant mop of hair. While Stein’s hero and heroine wend their word-tangled way through the dilemmas of 20th-century identity, Elaine struggles to sort out the values in being torturer and victim, leader and follower, lover and love object.
The silent but universally understood awareness of Stein’s lesbianism, contentedly ensconced in its long-term relationship with Alice Toklas, makes a mutely ironic contrast to Olga’s furtive but heavily signaled lesbian desires, which demand rites of torture and submission. (The film, or the Group, bridges its episodes with hilariously dumb globs of voiceover in which Olga’s craving for young women is treated as something far more depraved than, say, electrocution.) At the same time, Stein’s intended contrast between female self-sufficiency and the self-torturing male’s insistence on external achievement and conquest keeps being asserted, a constant analogy to Olga’s devilish drives. The evening is dense with thought.
As it is with motion. Both Stein’s mock innocence and the film’s failed worldliness have their funny side, and the staging, even at its peaks of frenzy, is the lightest and giddiest thing the Group has ever done. Under the vertiginous— and sometimes genuinely scary— swing of the four huge lamps, the actors scamper from side to side in the dark, colliding, throwing things, clutching or dodging each other. In addition to an ornate musical score that seems to have ransacked most of the 19th century and every filmland cliché, there is an elaborate soundtrack that begins with nature noises and evolves toward what might be described as an illustrated lecture on the possible tonalities of the crash box. Among its many jokes are a duck that quacks whenever Mephisto or Faustus says something blatantly false, and, buried under Marguerite’s plea for help, a hospital call “paging Dr. Faustus.”
The combination of a film source and the bits of operatic spectacle called for in Stein’s stage directions seems to have inspired director Elizabeth LeCompte to see how many movie-genre high points she could transpose onto her stage: Besides chases, tortures, and seductions, there’s a creation-of-the-monster apotheosis, a water ballet, and even a climactic shoot-out. Another comic high point is the scene in which the cured Marguerite sits in glory “with an artificial viper beside her,” a direction which the Group treats as a chance to disrupt the Steinian monologue with the subverbal responses of a snake-headed prop (its voice provided, hilariously, by John Collins), handled by Valk in her demurest Shari Lewis manner.
Valk’s performance, of course, is the centerpiece of the feast the show sets out. Those who are expecting something like the tragic weight and depth of her work in The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones should be forewarned: This is the other side— or, speaking cubistically, one of the 20 other sides— of Valk’s talent. It’s a demonstration of her aplomb, her wit, her sophisticated ability to turn a line reading within two words from utter sincerity to wry deadpan scorn. That she always suggests, behind the aplomb, the pain that sang out openly in O’Neill, is merely a formality, the authenticating stamp on a document you already know to be truthful.
Roche, Roy Faudree (Boy), and Ari Fliakos (Dog) give her able help in this dementia. The assertive soundtrack is by James “J.J.” Johnson and John Collins, the subtly interactive video by Philip Bussmann and Christopher Kondek. The source of the varied, amazingly mobile lights, no surprise, is Jennifer Tipton. My only complaint about the show is addressed to the dramaturg, who should have told Valk to pronounce “Helena” with the accent on the first syllable. But the dramaturg— who was Valk herself— undoubtedly had more important things to do.