Shakespeare Meets Hollywood Western in the Wooster Group's 'Cry Trojans!'

Courtesy of Jordan Riefe

The Wooster Group's eccentric take on Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" made its world premiere in downtown L.A.'s REDCAT Theater and runs through March 9.

It's Shakespeare, but spoken as if by Native Americans in a classic Hollywood Western. That's one way to describe Cry Trojans! (Troilus and Cressida), The Wooster Group's eccentric take on the Bard's most corrosive play. Directed by company co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte, the new production made its world premiere at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles Thursday night and runs through March 9.

LeCompte tells The Hollywood Reporter how the distinctly American take on Shakespeare arose. She hadn't been thinking of taking on the Bard until British director Rupert Goold approached her about collaborating on a project for the 2012 London World Shakespeare Festival. An associate at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time, he recommended Troilus and Cressida primarily because the drama unfolds in two camps, the Greeks and the Trojans. There was a decision that the Wooster Group would focus on the Trojan camp, while the RSC would inhabit the Greek camp. Neither side would see what the other was doing until they came together in London for their first performance. But with only a month to go, Goold got a movie gig and turned over the project to playwright-turned director Mark Ravenhill.

"He writes plays -- I'm more visually oriented," LeCompte says of Ravenhill. "We didn't see anything until three weeks before. I was into the collision of the two styles. When he brought his performance to our rehearsal space and they performed the scenes, I was stunned. It was nothing like I ever expected."

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Part of the collision was the result of what LeCompte sees as a stark divide between English and American Shakespeare. She finds the British a bit too precious about it, even going so far as to call them "provincial." But when it comes to American actors, she believes Shakespeare is practically a foreign tongue.

"We in America either do imitations of the English style of performing Shakespeare, or we trash it, do it as a porn cabaret," she says. "The English have a way of speaking, they have a range of tone in their voices that’s different. We have flat tone."

Cry, Trojans! is the Wooster Group's half of the 2012 collaboration rounded out with ideas from the RSC. Instead of costuming her cast in swords and sandals to represent Trojans, LeCompte festoons them with masks and moccasins as members of a fictional Native-American tribe.

"Troilus and Cressida has a lot of beautiful animus and nature imagery in it," LeCompte explains. "It reminded us of some of our '40s and '50s Westerns, the way the Native Americans speak in Hollywood."

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To drive the point home, her cast does the impossible: perform Shakespeare at the same time as they listen to their "spirit guides" (Russell Means and other Native American actors performing movie roles) on an earpiece.

Since 1975, when she and Spalding Gray fell in love and co-founded the Wooster Group, the company has become famous for adaptations that turn classic plays inside out, exposing their elements in a new way, as well as originating plays that seem to turn the medium itself inside out.

Through the years, accolades for their work have been legion, including nine Obies and six Bessie Awards as well as numerous fellowships and critic awards. Cast members who have come and gone include Ron Vawter, as well as Kate Valk and Scott Shepherd, who play Troilus and Cressida. And then, most famously, there is Willem Dafoe, with whom LeCompte has a son.

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In 1994, Vawter died of a heart attack at the age of 45. 10 years later, Gray took his own life just around the time LeCompte and Dafoe's decades-long relationship was coming to an end. And through it all, the 69-year-old LeCompte remains a creative dynamo, still willing the company forward after two generations.

"I'm really just relentless," she says. "I don't hold on. People come and go and I kind of follow the stream down where the water takes me."