Sunday, March 13, 2011


daylight savings day on planet brooklyn.

today all i want to do is think about and investigate and learn from the wooster group. the wooster group is one of those things-- like staten island, like the second floor of the house upstate where i rent a room-- that i can't explain why i haven't ever visited before. i have known about the wooster group since at least 1995ish. i remember going to see peggy shaw in menopausal gentleman and realizing that the wooster group was performing across the street and wishing one didn't have to choose between peggy and the woosters. anyhow, the woosters were sold out, and i had a ticket for peggy's show. but then why didn't i go see them another time? it has been 15 years since then. why? why? why?

it turns out that they touched something inside my tiny vital organs. the ones that keep me alive even in the dark moments.

i saw their interpretation of tennessee williams's vieux carre on friday night. now, sometimes avant garde theater is hard to sit through. sometimes it is theoretically interesting but difficult to physically be in the presence of. sometimes it is confusing. this production was none of the above. it was one of the most playful, exciting, involving, delightful, insightful displays of art that i have ever seen. the play, which i guess is a lesser-known williams script, takes place in seedy boarding house in new orleans, during the depression. the setting is apparently based on an actual boarding house where tennessee williams stayed in the 1930s. the characters include a gay writer, his neighbor, an older gay hustler/painter, a woman from new york who lives with her homophobic (but maybe a teensy bit gay) junkie boyfriend, the landlady, and a mysterious beautiful drifter. they are all in some kind of pain-- some are physically dying, some are running from something, some are afraid of their queerness. apart from the explicitly queer characters, the play is pretty much in keeping with what i know of t. williams's other work-- it builds slowly, climaxes violently and desperately at the end (leaving very little in the way of resolution or hope), features a rape, makes a comment on southern cultures, and is beautifully written.

the woosters interpreted it in what i gather is their traditional manner-- many video screens onstage with the actors, a moveable abstracted set on wheels, very physical performances. still, nobody seemed bored, actors included. it didn't seem canned, or affected, or showy. it was just consistently intriguing. why was it so appealingly interesting that when the guy with tb starts spitting up blood, the way the woosters represent it is by having him first drink--right there, on stage, in front of your eyes--from a bottle of red, blood-like liquid, then hold up a white hankerchief and cough a beautiful red-paint design disgustingly beautifully all over it? its not JUST that they break with realism there; its not JUST that it creates a beautiful painted hankerchief; its not JUST that it is simple, direct, and effective. i don't know what it is, or how to explain it. or: how to explain the complexity of the way they represented the character "nursie"-- a black woman who serves as the rooming house's maid. dressing her as a geisha, giving her a valley girl accent, nursie becomes a beautiful, cranky punk-type kid undermining the ghost of williams' mammy-like rendering. and the explicit, unapologetic, forceful way they stage a couple of unusual and explicit sexual acts. the power of it shocked me into an upright position and a smile. i wore a smile for most of the show, and most of the way home-- despite the difficult subject matter of the show. it was just so surprising and playful and smart. i couldn't stop smiling because of it.

there's more, there's tons more, some of it about what was happening on stage, some about what was happening off stage-- my response to the historical nature of the material, for instance; and the queer luminary-filled the audience (holly hughes, emily roysdon, dan hurlin), and Mills, who threw kisses across the theater at them. and the beautiful daily video poems they post online (here). but what sticks with me is the history of the wooster group. thirty-some years of making really really really strong work, developing a process that combines dance and improvisation and text and video and movement and ideas and performance tasks. i am only just really beginning to learn about the nature of the sort of experiments that they and other artists were doing in the 1970s and 1980s. i find that i can't look away. i want to know more.

is that a historical curiosity? i'm not sure. its a creative one, for sure. and its one that has been made more urgent by recent events.