The House That Wooster Built (and Unbuilt)

THEATER LEGEND HAS it that when Arthur Miller found out that the Wooster Group, a SoHo theater troupe, would do a rendition of The Crucible back in the '80s, the wise man was deeply offended; apparently, he threatened legal action to shut down the show. (We'll leave the irony of that possibility aside.) What the anecdote highlights, though, is the forbidding reputation of the the Woosters, who more or less began in 1975 and were among the first postmodernists in American theater, with artistic roots in the "happenings" and environmental theater of the '60s and early '70s.

Now, as then, the Wooster Group view theater as a total experience without one element of central import. They play with and juxtapose famous and obscure texts (e.g., Our Town against a porno flick), integrating video and film, original music and soundscapes, and lighting and dance into what Phillip Bither, performing-arts curator at the Walker Art Center, calls a "sensory overload" collage. That may not sound so strange today, but back when the company was getting started, postmodernism was on a psychic par just below killer bees in many minds--an exotic and mischievous force steadily approaching from the netherworld with dubious, probably destructive, intent.

What they did instead, according to renowned director Peter Sellars, was to create "the language that the theater will speak 15 to 20 years from now...the vocabulary of what a set looks like, how lighting behaves, how sound works, how video works, how all of those things go into creating a total work of art."

When reminded of this quote, company member Peyton Smith accepts the praise matter-of-factly. "I'm pretty sure that quote comes from 20 years ago," Smith says. "I don't go to much theater so I don't really know, but people say to us now, 'Oh, everybody uses video in their work now. Why do you do it?' Well, we were the first people doing it."

Though the company has hardly slipped into a mainstream aesthetic, one wonders if they ever tire of deconstructing old texts--especially now that's it's quite the thing? "Oh it is?" responds Smith, who plays Mephisto in their new work, House/Lights (which incorporates Gertrude Stein's 1939 work Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights). "See, I don't really know that. There are only so many stories, so why not just use 'the old ones,' as you call them. That's what interests me, taking old material and modernizing it. But we don't always deconstruct it. We certainly don't do that with this show. It's a very straightforward rendition."

Overseeing the production is director Elizabeth LeCompte, and though she has always been the Wooster Group's guiding force, the company has in recent years become even more of a women's operation. Company member Ron Vawter died in 1994; Spalding Gray departed years ago; and member Willem Dafoe has a film career to tend. It's no accident, then, that the new piece uses text by a woman (and casts women as Mephisto and Faustus), as well as a '60s cult film, Olga's House of Shame, about a female gang. "I think our pieces have been largely male dominated and male-centric," LeCompte says. "We wanted to work with the ethic of a girl gang."

For House/Lights, the company has enlisted some of the sharper tacks in contemporary arts, including lighting designer Jennifer Tipton; composer/musician John Lurie; choreographer Trisha Brown; and composer/sound effects master Hans-Peter Kuhn. And though Arthur Miller may have scorned the the Wooster Group's arch artistry, one suspects Gertrude Stein could have appreciated the irony of a high-tech take on a play about a man who has sold his soul for the mastery of electric light.

House/Lights plays November 20-23 at the Guthrie Lab; call 375-7622.

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