The Wooster Group was recently in town. Their production of Hamlet played at Redcat in the basement of the Music Center in downtown LA. Giddy with excitement, I went last Thursday night.
Back when I was a poor student in New York in the 1990s, I went to a lot of Wooster Group performances at the Performing Garage. I remember freezing my ass off while standing on line out on the Soho sidewalk because somehow I always saw them on the coldest night of the year. I remember shifting from foot to foot under the bright yellow streetlights and paying someone at a folding card table with a metal cash box. Once inside, I usually ended up in a seat that was either super close or way in the back or on a cushion. I remember leaving the Garage and walking out into the New York night as if I was floating on air. It was an odd feeling---one of complete positivity. Yes, that was good. Yes, yes, yes.
Their productions of Hairy Ape, Emperor Jones, North Atlantic, Brace Up are still some of the best things I have ever seen on a stage. Using video, elaborate but practical sets, gesture, and anything else that would work, the Group broke down and expanded plays to create something that I had never seen before. Seeing their work, I realized the infinite possibilities of the stage, and it was a very liberating realization.
By the way, to learn more about the Wooster Group, their website is here.
I had read about their Hamlet in which the Group had taken the video of 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton and recreated the staging. Because the 64 production ran fast and loose with the iambic pentameter meter, the Wooster Group re-edited the video to insert or delete pauses in the spoken text; as a result, the actors on the video seem to jump and make abrupt gestures. Since the actors on stage are following the video, they too are making abrupt gestures. Additionally, when the video moves from a wide shot to a close-up, the actors move up and down the stage quickly.
This might sound like theatrical clutter, but it isn’t. In fact, watching the production, I realized how much energy is generated in film editing. Then, on a stage, that same energy can be generated by movement. On a stage, video image is not the most powerful force. Movement is. By accentuating the edits on the video, the actors onstage are heightening the beats of a scene and transitions of the play.
In his diaries, Tolstoy the novelist listed his four main driving principles. The first on the list was Transition. Maybe he was right. Transition is the key.
But getting back to the Wooster Group, when I went to this performance, I didn’t have to wait on line on a cold street. I got my tickets online. Also, the seats were comfortable.
As we all waited for the show to begin, the fire alarm went off, and the house manager went up onto the stage and told us that it was not part of the performance. Some people thought he was part of the show. After all, how better to show the out-of-wack world of Denmark than with a fire alarm. However, the announcement came on that we were all clear, and the play began.
Even though we got the opening lines (one of my favorite openings in a play---Who’s there? Nay, tell me.--- such great confusion), the video and play were very quickly fast forwarded to Burton’s entrance as Hamlet. After all, we weren’t watching any Hamlet. We were watching the recreation of a star as Hamlet, and Scott Shepard throws everything he’s got into the Burton/Hamlet. At times, Shepard even seems to out-Burton Burton. It seemed fitting that the Wooster Group comes to Los Angeles (den of celebrity worship) and gives us that.
We meet all the familiar characters---the King, the Queen, Ophelia. In a funky twist, both the Queen and Ophelia are played by the same actress (the great Kate Valk) who does some fast wig and costume changes. Watching the whole production, I felt I was watching kids in a play room acting out their favorite video.
The whole enterprise came in under three hours, and when I walked out into the warm Los Angeles air, I felt that old feeling, that old good feeling. As I drove home on the freeway in the pink Los Angeles night, I felt like I was driving on air---which actually made sense literally since I had air in my tires.