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The 2004 suicide of famed monologist Spalding Gray adds a deeper, almost unbearable level of poignancy to Rumstick Road, the video reconstruction of the famed 1977 Wooster Group theater piece he created in collaboration with Elizabeth LeCompte about his mother’s battle with depression and death at her own hand. Not strictly a recorded document of the original production featuring Gray, Libby Howes, Ron Vawter and Jim Clayburgh, this version devised by LeCompte and Ken Kobland blends together numerous elements — including “U-Matic video, Super-8 film, reel-to-reel audio tapes, photographs and slides” — to create something entirely new. Theater lovers who missed the legendary production considered a landmark of experimental theater, as well as those familiar with Gray only through the filmed versions of his solo shows Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy, will rejoice at the prospect of seeing this film receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere run at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives.
The piece concerns Gray’s efforts to come to grips with the death of his mother, Margaret, who killed herself in 1967 at the age of 52. It incorporates audio recordings and reenactments of conversations he conducted with his father, his two grandmothers and a psychiatrist who briefly treated his mother with such methods as electric shock therapy. The latter compassionately tells Gray, “Don’t be frightened by a hereditary predisposition,” a piece of advice that now seems chillingly foreboding considering the writer-performer’s eventual fate.
The emotional power of the piece, which also incorporates dramatic scenes and choreographed movement, still comes through in intense fashion nearly four decades later. This experimental video version is not always easy to watch — the original footage is blurred and grainy — but its multilayered juxtaposition of sounds and images invests it with a haunting air of timelessness. Serving as both a vital historical document and a noteworthy achievement in its own right, Rumstick Road is essential viewing for anyone interested in experimental theater.
Opens May 1
Cast: Spalding Gray, Libby Howes, Ron Vawter, Jim Clayburgh
Directors: Elizabeth LeCompte, Ken Kobland
Video collage/edit: Ken Kobland
Not rated, 75 minutes
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