Gertrude Stein once replied to an interviewer who couldn’t make sense of her 1934 opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, “If you enjoy, you understand; if you understand, you enjoy.” The same could be said of the Wooster Group, the country’s preeminent experimental-theater troupe, which brilliantly explored (and exploded) another of Stein’s works in House/Lights (1998) and which has also confused, outraged, and thrilled viewers for nearly 40 years.
Since its founding in 1975, the Soho-based company led by Elizabeth LeCompte has encountered its share of detractors. Particularly in its first decade, many neither enjoyed nor understood its radical interventions into classic texts and its explorations of inflammatory American theatrical traditions. The company lost all of its New York State Council on the Arts funding after its 1981 production Route 1 & 9 featured four white actors in blackface. It received a cease-and-desist letter from Arthur Miller for its unauthorized use of passages from The Crucible in 1984’s L.S.D. (. . . Just the High Points . . .)—a stinging review of which in this publication led to the temporary banning of critics from its shows. Segments from both of these productions are included in Anthology’s comprehensive tribute to the Wooster Group, which focuses on the troupe’s first 30 years and coincides with the production of “Early Plays,” a collaboration between the Wooster Group and New York City Players, now onstage at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The retro encompasses not only the official recorded versions of several of the company’s plays, including House/Lights, but also its excursions into separate avant-garde film and video work—some of which were integrated into the theatrical pieces, as the Wooster Group was among the first to incorporate monitors and other multimedia elements on stage.
Most poignantly, the Anthology series serves as a tribute to the dead and a record of the evolution of downtown New York’s most singular talents. The autobiographical fragments of Wooster Group founding member Spalding Gray, who committed suicide in 2004 and was romantically partnered with LeCompte until 1979, form the crux of “Three Places in Rhode Island,” a trilogy (plus an epilogue) of the group’s first productions, snippets of which are in the retro. Sakonnet Point (1975) reveals Gray in psychodrama mode, roaming around the stage in briefs, holding a toy airplane, and making increasingly loud and distressed engine sounds. Rumstick Road (1977) includes audio of the actor talking to a senescent female relative while someone in an old-lady mask manipulates his lips and tongue. Mounted in 1978, Nayatt School shows the actor playing an LP of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party in the setup for which he would become most famous in his solo career as a monologist: seated behind a table, a pitcher of water to his right.
Another Wooster Group pillar, Ron Vawter, who died of AIDS in 1994, impresses with his wry interrogation of male authority in Route 1 & 9. The production opens with the actor assuming the role of a stiff expert on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, his didactic lesson on “what the play tells us about ourselves” soon detonated by the frenzied minstrel-clowning of the blackfaced performers (which, yes, is extremely difficult to watch). With his finely chiseled, hawk-like features, Vawter makes a great racist cop in White Homeland Commando (1992), a video work written for the troupe by Michael Kirby that sends up Law & Order and presages border-patrol crazies.
Vawter’s co-stars in WHC include fellow Wooster Group original members Willem Dafoe (LeCompte’s partner from 1979 until roughly 2003) and Kate Valk. Both electrifying performers, they represent two diverging definitions of “success.” Throughout the decades, Dafoe would return to the troupe’s headquarters, the Performing Garage at 33 Wooster Street, after working on an Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese epic. Valk, who has appeared in every one of the company’s productions since Route 1 & 9, has a much different relationship to the camera. “It’s like a big black hole,” she told The New York Times in 2006. “I don’t know who to be.” But anyone who has seen her onstage would be happy to tell her who she is: the unparalleled empress of experimental theater.