When an aspirant student of literature sets about learning the canon, the masterworks will be waiting. Indeed, they’re always there, resting on library shelves across America. Young film scholars needn’t travel very far to enjoy the classics of their medium, either, now that almost any opus can be downloaded at high speed and in high definition. Only the theater denies its disciples this luxury. You can’t simply buy, rent, pirate, or otherwise track down Jerzy Grotowski’s Orpheus as it was performed in 1959, nor the Manhattan Project’s Alice in Wonderland as it was mounted in 1970. The enthusiast is only afforded the compromise of ancillary evidence: scripts, production notes, a handful of firsthand accounts and reviews. Great performances are by nature impermanent. When it comes to the masterpieces of the theater, we have to take history’s word for it.
Filmed theater remains a sort of compromise of its own, rather like reading the Russians in translation — you may glean a sense of an original greatness, but it is a faint impression, glimpsed like a room through a keyhole. So it is that we are greeted with the Wooster Group’s new “video reconstruction” of Elizabeth LeCompte and Spalding Gray’s play Rumstick Road, whose landmark presentation at the Performing Garage in 1977 is regarded as among the most significant productions in the history of experimental theater. That a work of such importance and repute can now be experienced, however indirectly, nearly 40 years after its New York debut, warrants celebration, introducing to new eyes a performance thought lost to time. It may not be a substitute for being there. But make no mistake: This is one keyhole view that ought to be cherished.
The most striking thing about Rumstick Road is that there are two texts to consider. The first is historical: Rumstick Road the play, as it was composed by LeCompte and Gray and performed by Gray, Libby Howes, Ron Vawter, and Bruce Porter. This Rumstick Road survives its preservation more or less intact. True, the performance loses something in immediacy (owing to the 37-year remove) and spatial sense (owing to the substitution of a screen for the stage), but, crucially, it retains its vigor, its velocity, and its conviction. And it retains its commitment to pain — physical, emotional, psychic. This is still very much the production that Michael Feingold, writing in this paper at the time of its premiere, described as “brutal exploitation” on the part of its grieving author. Gray built Rumstick around the suicide of his mother, and you got the sense that, for him, the play was always something of an open wound. Gray apparently took his own life 10 years ago. This wound still festers.
Gray’s death in 2004 may account for the dark charge that animates Rumstick Road in 2014. As a film, decades later, the production has taken on a new and intriguing dimension: It now seems to somehow reflect back on itself, a kind of feedback loop of history, until Gray’s reminiscences of his mother’s descent into madness and death are transformed, through the mediating force of cinema, into a tacit account of his own demise. The substance of Gray’s contributions to this material have not been diminished: Like Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy, the pared-down films by Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh that immortalized Gray’s monologues as one-man cinematic epics, Rumstick Road stands as yet another testament to the genius of our greatest soliloquist. But for those familiar with Gray only in the context of his traditional “poor theater” arrangement — an arrangement best described by Mark Russell, writing in memoriam in these pages after Gray’s death, as merely little more than “a table, a glass of water, a spiral notebook, and a mic” — the scope of Rumstick Road will seem a revelation.
That scope is not so much captured by its video reconstruction as it is amplified by it. What LeCompte and collaborator Ken Kobland have assembled here is a sort of composite recording, a collage of archival material whose patchwork quality only adds to the source text’s sense of the uncanny. Weaving together, in their own words, fragments of “U-Matic video, Super-8 film, reel-to-reel audio tapes, photographs, and slides,” they have crafted something exquisitely strange in its own right: This new Rumstick Road has the feel of an avant-garde film, replete with superimpositions, misalignments, and juxtapositions of incongruous material. There is no pretense of taking in the stage as it would have been seen during the original production. A precise replication of Rumstick Road would have been impossible. So LeCompte and Kobland have provided something better: a reinvention, reinvigorated. This is not merely a document of something extraordinary. It is something extraordinary all on its own.