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Although The Wooster Group has been a frequent visitor to Los Angeles (most recently a year ago with Eugene O’Neill’s early seafaring plays), this new mounting of its glum fantasia on a text by William Shakespeare represents the company’s first world premiere production to debut outside New York (not counting a dozen warm-up previews at its Performing Garage home). The piece originated in a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company in which the Woosters played the Trojans and the RSC the Greeks. Troupe guru Elizabeth LeCompte continued to explore the text, subsequently to arrive at this entirely new realization in which the Trojans are depicted as an amalgam of historic Native American (read: spiritually superior but doomed) cultures.
I’ve seen Troilus and Cressida performed twice before and have always found the story hard to follow, and the arc of its intention even more challenging to apprehend. It does not track Homer’s account, as the titular young lovers derive from Boccaccio and Chaucer. Penetrating the author’s themes becomes even more obscure in this account, so tarted out with the Wooster house style that the original play, as is their wont, becomes a pretext for the genuine subject: the absorption of the collective enterprise with its own mannerisms, gestures, concepts and submission to an overriding vision of the nature of performance. It can be baffling or confusing, particularly in the early going, but there can be no doubt that it has its own distinctive internal coherence and eventual grandeur.
If any Shakesperean work can lend itself to such wholesale modernist transfiguration, it may be this one. Its world-view, as best as may be discerned, is bleakly nihilistic, in which virtually no one understands the deleterious consequences of their actions. The lovers are separated by back-room negotiations between enemies, and Cressida becomes sexually debased by her Greek captors without apparent protest. Indeed, sex even between lovers is not lyrically rhapsodized, but regarded as part of the inevitable brutishness of human existence.
There are terrific passages of poetic language, which the formidably flexible actors handle bluntly in deliberate spams of offbeat rhythms in a melange of unaccountable accents, from the Midwest to the Midlands, and double and triple in widely differing roles without adequate attempts at differentiation. Even in the original, the dramatic thrust rarely coalesces, and in this determinedly alienating rendition, that defect is forward-grounded for maximum dislocating impact, underscored by an aggressively unnaturalistic sound mix that disembodies the voices while preserving precise diction. The inevitable video component, muted this time onto small, almost indecipherable, screens, nevertheless still distracts, not least when in the lovers’ most ardent scenes. One’s attention is inexorably drawn to the soundless extracts from the movie of Splendor in the Grass, exactly the sort of bald cry of emotion that Cry, Trojans! eschews.
Still and all, though the monotony of its stubborn deviations from conventional dramaturgy demands hard effort from the audience that is long not adequately awarded, the uncompromising commitment to its sui generis intransigence does eventually seduce a surrender to accept it on its own stern terms. It ends on a note of bleak hopelessness, not with a bang but a whimper, and doggedly steadfast to deny any pleasure of release.
Venue: REDCAT, Downtown Los Angeles (runs through Apr. 19)
Cast: Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk, Greg Merhten, Andrew Schneider, Ari Fliakos, Gary Wilmes, Casey Spooner, Suzzy Roche, Bobby McElver, Max Bernstein, Jennifer Lim
Director: Elizabeth LeCompte
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set, props & costume designer: Folkert de Jong, Delphine Courtillot
Sound designer: Bruce Odland, Bobby McElver, Max Bernstein
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Video, projections & control interfaces: Andrew Schneider
Producer: Cynthia Hedstrom
A Wooster Group production.
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