In a scene from the Wooster Group’s Poor Theater: A Series of Simulacra, director Elizabeth LeCompte (played by company member Sheena See), explains the project to “a leading scholar and friend of Grotowski’s.” LeCompte wants to restage Grotowski’s production of Akropolis, a pinnacle of 1960s experimental drama, in the original Polish. “Why would you want to do that?” asks the scholar. “I don’t know,” LeCompte replies. “Well, I don’t get that at all,” says the scholar, crossly. “That was one great piece . . . Don’t try to imitate it, don’t try to revive it. Just leave it alone.”
The Wooster Group has always maintained an entertainingly vexed relationship with its source materials. Critics and audiences censured earlier productions for either the texts chosen (illegally taped phone conversations) or the ways the company deployed them (blacking up for Pigmeat Markham routines, revamping The Crucible to such an extent that Arthur Miller obtained a cease-and-desist order). More recently, the Group has specialized in appropriating classic scripts (Three Sisters, Phaedra, The Hairy Ape) and rendering them affecting, startling, almost unrecognizable.
But their approach to Akropolis doesn’t appear nearly as playful. The company visited Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theater (a visit they surreptitiously recorded and restage), hired a teacher of Polish, and apparently spent countless hours watching a BBC film of Akropolis and contorting their faces and bodies into imitative equivalence. Never have they been so faithful to a text, or seemed, even in their studiedly disarrayed way, quite so afraid of getting it wrong. (Ironically, Grotowski’s dramaturge wrote in a 1964 essay, “Of all the plays Grotowski has directed, Akropolis is the least faithful to its literary original.”)
This particular simulacrum only forms one third of Poor Theater. A brief second act brings together See’s LeCompte with surrealist artist Max Ernst as they make the shared discovery of frottage—rubbing charcoal or black lead against paper placed over a surface, in this case parquet floors. In the third act, the company rubs up against William Forsythe, artistic director of the erstwhile Ballet Frankfurt. As Scott Shepherd recites a talk culled from several of Forsythe’s lecture-demonstrations, Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos twist and roll on the floor behind him, depicting his interest in “odd ways of being legible on the stage.” And in a coda, Forsythe’s frenetic demonstration, set to a cowboy soundtrack, morphs into a staging of Akropolis and finds the actors disappearing into a trap door so that, just as at the end of Grotowski’s piece, “only the smoke remains.”
As the opening scenes play out, you may find yourself agreeing with the scholar that restaging Akropolis seems, at best, a confusing and quixotic undertaking. But as the piece progresses, the enterprise makes more and sadder sense. With the suicide of Spalding Gray and the departure of Willem Dafoe, this has been an unusually difficult year for the company. Poor Theater reflects this not in any direct or self-pitying fashion, but in its concerns with the impossibility of re-creation, the hopelessness of re-membering or making whole. Even as Valk and Fliakos hilariously flail and fail to create the sort of movements Shepherd’s Forsythe explains, there’s a strain of melancholy underlying the silliness. In an interview during a workshop performance, LeCompte admitted she turned to Grotowski because “I thought, maybe I should go toward something I’m not drawn to very much and see if I can enter it with less emotional stuff involved.” In that endeavor LeCompte has failed, but a poignant work remains.
In Towards a Poor Theatre, Grotowski wrote, “The actor’s act—discarding half measures, revealing, opening up—is an invitation to the spectator.” In the frenzied Saint Oedipus, the actors of the Polish company Theatre Wierszalin certainly do reveal and open themselves up, but it’s an invitation spectators may be wary of accepting. Writer-director Piotr Tomaszuk combines the Oedipus myth with medieval legends and the novels of Thomas Mann. Garbed in S/M gear or tainted shrouds, actors Rafal Gasowski and Edyta Lukaszewicz-Lisowska play sister and brother, mother and son, and, memorably, two cardinals.
As the set decays and the bloodstains accumulate, the play alternates between emotional histrionics and philosophical dilemmas. Rock music vies with Polish folk songs and baroque strains while the actors keen for the culture of sin and the temptations of the physical. If the concerns verge on the grandiose and scenes skate the laughable, the commitment of the players keeps the piece in check. The characters may mourn that “the body is a grave,” “the body is a trap,” but it’s the actors’ torturous physicality that redeems the play.