Sacrilege though it may be, there are times when one can’t help but rue the legacy of Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group. This is not to undervalue the way these contemporary legends have invigorated our alternative theater; it’s just not always easy to sit through the work of their disciples. Of course, for every bona fide genius, there’s an army of admirers trying to duplicate the magic. But couldn’t the new crop of Downtown directors evince just a little more anxiety of influence? Obviously, every generation is to a certain extent derivative of the previous one. The trick is to soak up the examples without blandly conforming to them—or, to put it less secularly, to retain your own soul while being transformed by another’s.
These musings arise from some disappointing theatergoing—disappointing mainly because the productions come from two promising companies. While both Cannon Co.’s Puss and Axis Theatre’s Frankenstein offer highly adventurous adaptations of classics, neither has much success in blending auteur elements into a distinct, not to say enjoyable, whole.
Director Richard Kimmel has taken his lead not only from the Wooster Group, but from the early Romantic German playwright Ludwig Tieck. Puss in Boots, Tieck’s jaunty handling of the fairy tale, is noteworthy for the groundbreaking way it interrupts the course of dramatic illusion through its play-within-a-play construction. Conventional melodrama bears the brunt of Tieck’s humorous attacks. Kimmel’s method, however, is all disruption. An actor (Dan Cohen) portraying Kimmel makes a curtain speech apologizing for a delayed start. One of the cast members, he explains, has been injured during rehearsal and will appear instead on a monitor. This is just the beginning of the evening’s contrived mishaps.
While we’re encouraged to enjoy the childlike “wonder” of the Tieck story, what we get instead is a multilayered presentation (yes, the Performing Garage’s scaffolding is in use) of a series of theatrical ruptures and breakdowns. A cheery video cartoon introduction leads to an encounter with Puss (Andrew Garman), the talking cat whose mission is to maximize his newly inherited master’s future prospects. Let the deconstruction begin. The multimedia treatment of the material features hardcore porno clips alternating with animated shorts and kung fu movies. This Woosterish mélange, however, is routinely undermined. Seemingly incongruous rants are delivered over a microphone, including one by an actor in blackface, whose assault on political correctness contains a barrage of racial epithets and even refers to the controversial use of minstrelsy in the Wooster Group’s Route 1 and 9. Several actors posing as audience members groan, bicker, and eventually storm out. Finally, one by one the cast and stage crew refuse to continue.
Have I mentioned the sudden outbursts of techno dancing? Puss is indeed a colorful and cacophonous mess. But while there’s an antic theoretical mind behind the coordinated tumult—one with an impressively long view of the avant-garde—the piece works better as an idea than as a theatrical experience. For one thing Tieck, though critical of Romantic melodrama, was adept at manufacturing the very illusion he wanted to destroy. Kimmel doesn’t yet have the directorial craft to effectively conjure the Wooster Group’s theatrical cosmos, so his respectful havoc-wreaking on their aesthetic seems like just a lot of empty Sturm und Drang.
Collectively conceived by the Axis Company, Frankenstein takes an equally bizarre if less frantic multimedia approach to its source material. The premise is a doozy: The traditional man-made-monster tale is combined with stranger-than-fiction accounts of the murder of Frank Lloyd Wright’s entire household and Chicago World’s Fair serial killer H.H. Holmes. As occult as this ghoulish goulash may seem, the Axis recipe is a familiar one: fragmentary dramatic episodes enacted live while eclectic video footage fills in some narrative blanks.
Saddened by the tragic loss of his family, architect Frank (David Guion) decides to build his version of Holmes’s “Castle of Horrors,” where he will assemble the still-warm body parts of his unwitting guests into a neo-Frankenstein. With plenty of limbs left over, Frank cobbles together a bride (Laurie Kilmartin) for the lonely monster (Edgar Oliver), who resembles a Peter Lorre character in need of Prozac. Still depressed after marriage, the cadaverous groom escapes with his wife to the North Pole (where the couple will undoubtedly keep better), leaving poor bereaved Frank once again in the lurch.
If only director Randy Sharp knew how funny this ludicrous story could be! Sitting in the space once occupied by Charles Ludlum, it was hard not to wish the bawdy spirit of the Ridiculous would take momentary possession of the cast. Despite the bowler hats worn by two actors and the uniform presence of elevator shoes, an awkward deadpan prevails. The comedy occasionally simmers but never comes to a boil. Aspiring to a clichéd multimedia hipness, Axis’s Frankenstein never establishes a distinctive rhythm of its own.