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Vieux Carré

The Wooster Group, REDCAT, December 1, 2010 – December 12, 2010 –

Art, like life itself, is an activity rich in paradox. The style of an artist, their aesthetic signature, limits as well as shapes their expressive energies. Great artists embrace and also rebel against their own style with equal ardor, and it’s this tension that creates the evolution, the trajectory of their work. Some artists tuck all that struggle behind the drapes; some let it become the direct subject matter of the work itself. Either way, this tension is exactly where we, in our self-created lives, connect to the artistic project in an urgent way. The struggles of the artist with form and style, hidden or shamelessly displayed, show us how to derive pleasure from our own life struggles in a mode of solidarity and generosity.

In theater you want to know that the text itself is rich in this illuminating tension. It’s best when a writer (rather than a director or an ensemble) has created this text, and when that writer is a poet as well as a dramatist. Then it’s best if the performing artists who bring the text to life experience it as both a shaping force and a limiting restraint; they must embrace and rebel against the text with equal commitment. That’s when you get these wonderful multiplying, double helix effects – the performers doing on their level what the playwright has done on his (or her) level – and the whole thing becomes worth the slog through traffic to get to the theater. The Wooster Group’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré at REDCAT last week was a high culture cage match of this kind, and it was a pleasure to behold.

The play itself is a tortured miscreant. Williams took forty years to cough up Vieux Carré, and the play seems untidy, oddly unresolved in itself, a wounded limping thing…that the Woosters seize in their jaws like rabid wolverines. The Woosters have a Soho-bred distrust of sincerity, but for our sake they are stuffing themselves with it here. Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos are terrific in the production. Director Elizabeth LeCompte knows how well these two complement each other on stage, and both performers are building on physical vocabularies they have developed over the course of a decade. The night I saw the play Shepherd, performing two roles, was at moments so expressive physically I felt truly honored to be there. The huge mechanism of theater exists to create exactly those moments of presence, and it would be a mistake to underestimate their transformative value. In a quieter vein Fliakos was just as good as the writer, finding ways to be tentative and absent within the demands of the Wooster style. But Kate Valk, as always, was the one who fascinated. How to describe the minutely tuned irony of her delivery? With every breath she managed to lampoon but also honor the intimate angst of method acting. It felt like watching A-Rod cover first and third base at the same time – it shouldn’t be possible.

The challenges of depicting intimacy in theater have to do with the basic configurations of the stage space. In theater, the off-stage is where the unconscious resides, the dark matter that feeds and supports the luminous spectacle under the lights. Invite too much of that dark matter onto the stage and you drain the luminance. Or, if you want to adopt Nietzschean rather than Freudian imagery, it’s Dionysus who rules the off-stage and if you invite him onto the stage you had better reify him into a character…in which case you’re staging a version of The Bacchae and not a psychological melodrama rich in private regrets. You could make a case that Williams did write versions of The Bacchae – Streetcar, for example – but with Vieux Carré he’s really trying to tell the truth about himself in a non-paradoxical way and things get soupy. And that’s why the ironic force of the Wooster Group is just the right combination. The irony pushes all that unformed Dionysian energy back off stage where it belongs and the spectacle turns like a dancer and begins to lift.

You have to understand that the Woosters are not really people at all – they are complex aesthetic entities that self-catalyzed out of the cloud of irony that settled over the area between Houston and Canal in the 1970s and then condensed there for the next few decades. The fact that we must now look to the Woosters for ways to reconnect to our humanity might be to some a sign of how far gone we really are. But, ever the optimist, I actually view it as another indication that American culture is beginning to raise its gaze a bit after the ferocious horizontality of the post-modern, Warhol era. Change, one senses, is in the air.


  1. Robert Gould says:

    I really like the metaphor of hungry animals dining on art!

  2. Hank Bunker says:

    A baseball metaphor. Things are looking up — to paraphrase Pinter.

    I loved this show too. And I think I agree with you, if what you mean by Dionysian energy being pushed off stage is when Kate Valk, for example, siphons the camp out of Mrs. Wire by caricaturing the camp. With the author’s florid expressiveness canceled out like this, a contemporary audience (i.e., me) could finally hear this play, which, it turns out, is pure poetry.

    Such meta-theatrical devices, embodied by each actor in different ways, and by the production style itself, worked the same way for me, resulting finally in a bracing encounter with the heart and soul of the author. There is also probably something dismally true about the fact that it’s easier for audiences to absorb a multi-media narrative than a straight play anymore, especially if we’re being asked to sit for two hours with no intermission.

    As for Kate Valk, I like to think she was wonderful in spite the method acting, if that’s what it was — method acting being a load of crap. She’s a performer. And along with every other performer onstage (save the actors in minor roles), she embodied two realities at all times — the heightened, performative one of the self-conscious ironist, and the intimate one of the actor always on her toes, activating her characters’ intent, thoughts directed outward, focused on the responses of those around her.

    This embodied duality definitely worked for this play. As you say, it delivers a shock, a big fricken wake-up. Kind of like the way Derek Jeter did in Game 3 of the 2000 ALDS, when he materialized in two places at once and nailed Giambi at home.

  3. Dov Rudnick says:

    Why couldn’t it be Casey Blake covering first and third? Come on Guy, we’re in LA. Represent.

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