Theater

Shakespearean Tragedy! Trojans Dressed Like Hollywood Indians! Monotony Ensues!

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Director Liz LeCompte’s longstanding dispute with classical forms was one of the things that made the original Wooster Group’s productions so magnetic and perplexing. From the ensemble’s early 1980s projects, these troublemakers looked for disruptions and fissures in source materials — from soft targets such as Arthur Miller, Chekhov, and Eugene O’Neill plays to Flaubert novels, hula records, and members’ autobiographical narratives. You could say LeCompte is the original deconstructing director, devising maniacally theatrical ways to reveal repressed elements of a given text. (In its controversial 1981 piece Route 1 & 9, for instance, the Group made intrusions on the lily-whiteness of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town via Pigmeat Markham routines in blackface.) Mash-ups led to provocative frictions, as B-movie rolls collided with revered naturalistic dramas. In those old stagings the ironies could be dizzying, and the original ensemble members were so frenzied and magnetic, so triumphantly iconoclastic and countercultural, that you couldn’t take your eyes off them even as they leapt around the stage in a multimedia sandstorm.

More recently LeCompte, with a largely new and younger group of actors, has continued this dialogue with classicism in tamer musings such as 2005’s Poor Theater: A Series of Simulacra, re-enacting a grainy film of Jerzy Grotowski’s experimental opus Akropolis and then choreographer William Forsythe’s aesthetic theories.

The Woosters’ newest show, Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida), feels like a dead end — or a wrong turn — in this longer investigation. Trojans! began as a 2010 collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The premise: to mount Shakespeare’s lovers-in-the–Trojan War tragedy with a major duel at the center. The postmodern New Yorkers played the Trojans; the tradition-trained Brits were the Greeks. They rehearsed separately, then merged the dueling camps for the premiere in England. For this next incarnation, however, the RSC has left the building. Wooster performers tackle the Greek roles in masks and English accents, directly quoting their British colleagues’ mannered performances from that 2010 staging. On one level, Cry, Trojans! celebrates this clash of artistic sensibilities.

As they recite Shakespeare’s text, company members also replicate a jumble of archival film clips. We can’t really see the film roll, which plays continuously on four small monitors in the stage corners. What are they? Why have they been selected? They appear to be Hollywood melodramas and old-school cowboys-and-Indians pictures (was that a young Warren Beatty?), but we don’t and can’t know. The Wooster performers, clad in exaggerated Indian-movie getups, closely mimic these screen actors’ gestures and intonations, fed through video and sound prompts.

The ensemble plays the Trojans dully as old-Hollywood Indian types, with flattened accents and pseudo-ceremonial dances. Native Americans and others have objected to the show’s appropriation of this imagery, calling it insensitive and worse. On the other hand, Cry, Trojans! is not representational drama in a conventional sense: The company performs from a spectrum of cultural sources — simultaneously and with no mediation. The disorientation is intentional. Invoking Hollywood’s loathsome versions of founding myths — part of America’s repertory — as well as the RSC’s wooden replication of Shakespeare, the Woosters deliberately underline the inauthenticity of these icons as well as their own inauthenticity as Shakespearean players. In the end, though, these antics don’t gain much traction. By staging the bulk of Shakespeare’s text in this single-minded but opaque mode, monotony sets in where once we would have seen wild provocation.