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LeCompte and Co.

North Atlantic, Wooster Group at REDCAT, February 10–21, 2010 –

Many things went through my mind walking away from REDCAT after seeing the Wooster Group’s North Atlantic, but one of them was surely hats off to the company’s artistic director, Elizabeth LeCompte. First created by LeCompte and company in 1982, North Atlantic holds up remarkably well. The writer, James Strahs, pulled from texts by Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Gertrude Stein, and the company, anchored by Francis McDormand, Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, hit their marks with style and precision. Set on an aircraft carrier moored off the coast of Holland, the piece juxtaposes tough-talking military exchanges with kinky sexual banter, presenting life during the Cold War as a fever dream full of violence and desire. Devoid of the multi-layered video projections that play a major role in later Wooster Group productions, North Atlantic features the fast noir rhythms and the Grotowski-esque physicality that define the company’s approach to performance. Evidently LeCompte remains as sharp as a tack.

North Atlantic was created shortly after LeCompte took the reins from founder Richard Schechner and changed the company’s name from the Performance Group to the Wooster Group. Schechner had been one of America’s earliest and most energetic proponents of the visionary Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s laboratory aesthetic. This past summer I saw Schechner at the Grotowski Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, where the elite of the global avant-garde gathered to pay tribute to the legendary Pole. Schechner spoke to our group about Grotowski’s impact on American theater, the rigor and seriousness he demanded from performers in every aspect of their craft. The Wooster Group’s highly physicalized performance style and their intensive working methods are among the most visible examples in America of Grotowski’s belief in theater as transformative ritual grounded in fully embodied presence in action. Beyond any rigid doctrine, the stamp of Grotowski is the absolute conviction that theater is linked in crucial ways to our collective sanity and, as such, merits the highest level of commitment.

At the same time I got the sense that Schectner’s earthiness and urbanity helped to limit the transcendent aspirations of Grotowski, pushing things in the direction of a kind of neo-Brechtian irony and spectacle. Or perhaps LeCompte is the source of those qualities in the Wooster Group’s basic affect. Either way, part of the reason the Group has found favor with the American art world is that they don’t mess all that much with depth. If American theater is a vast inland sea, wide and shallow, the Wooster Group is one of the bigger crocs, sunning themselves on their mossy log just North of Canal. Their productions are best thought of as comedies that don’t really have time for a sense of humor. It’s interesting to compare with the Polish company Theater Zar, which is Grotowski-inspired work at its most achingly transcendent. Unlike Zar, the Wooster Group does not traffic in reverence; leave the tragic dimension to the Eastern Europeans and pass the smutty jokes.

Rigor without transcendence manifests as kinetic energy, which is LeCompte’s forte as a director. Energy is where the agenda of art links up most easily with the American mindset, and this helps to explain why a counter-cultural enterprise like the Wooster Group has managed to slip past the informal censors that guard American sensibilities from challenge. One searches in vain, in a Wooster Group production, for the subversive silence in which self-recognition can bubble up. And yet one reason North Atlantic holds up so well is that America has matched the shallowness the piece is intent on satirizing. North Atlantic feels much darker now than it would have in the early 1980s. The addition of a Moslem call to prayer way in the background and some references to water boarding are all LeCompte needs to remind us of Abu Graib and Blackwater – of how far we have fallen. North Atlantic does not lack edge, it just aims its edge at tissue where the nerve endings long ago died.

For me the most successful Wooster Group piece was Hamlet, which came to REDCAT in 2007. The piece showed LeCompte’s command of a full high-tech barrage working to support her performers, and the brilliance of her meta-theatrical staging. And yet despite all the distancing and irony, the grandeur of Shakespeare’s mythic text came through loud and clear. To me, and as a playwright I am fully biased here, theater remains at root a literary activity. It’s when rigor in performance meets an original text with true depth that the full transformative display of the art form arises. This is why the highest points in the history of world theater tend to center around a significant playwright rather than a director. Think of fifth century Athens, Elizabethan England, the European era of Ibsen, or to a lesser degree the post War Europe defined by Brecht and Beckett; the playwright-centered convergence seems to occur when a culture begins to run a kind of maximum energy, an energy that translates into a willingness to collectively engage with the radical freedom of the present moment. We do not seem to be currently living in such a time, but perhaps the best way to move in the right direction is to pretend that we are.

That said, it’s impossible to overstate the challenge of maintaining an American new work theater company over the last thirty years the way LeCompte has done, much less a company that has consistently produced such excellent and original work. Theater is pre-eminently an emergent art form, each performance resting on a huge web of complex social and artistic interactions. From the banality of board meetings to the Shakespearean treachery of inter-company politics to the ecstatic energy of performance, an artistic director like LeCompte has to engage with the full spectrum of human experience and remain operative. We are lucky to have artists as strong as LeCompte and her Woosters, and we should treasure every performance.

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