Los Angeles Theater Review: EARLY PLAYS (The Wooster Group at REDCAT)

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by Jason Rohrer on February 22, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

WAY TOO EARLY PLAYS

Imagine you’d never heard of the Wooster Group, and that you knew nothing of the avant-garde theater’s storied history, or its origins in the downtown scene of 1970s New York that revitalized the American stage, or its famous founders including Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe.  And suppose you didn’t know who director Richard Maxwell was, or about the New York City Players, his experimental theater company.  Entertain the conceit that you hadn’t studied the post-modern literary movements that inspired the Woosters’ and Mr. Maxwell’s aesthetics.  You might in that case mistake Early Plays, their Obie-winning co-production of three Eugene O’Neill one-acts, for a slightly pretentious, clumsily mounted, stiffly-acted piece of student theater.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema review of "Early Plays" - Wooster Group at REDCAT in LAIt isn’t that.  What’s happening here (in a limited run at REDCAT) is academic, but it’s also very much on purpose.  Mr. Maxwell uses disinterested staging, disaffected acting, and minimal sets and lighting in service of a brazen textual deconstruction that can lay bare the language and structure of source material.  But what’s made perfectly clear about these stories of dissolute merchant mariners is that this material is thin stuff.  Most successful experiments in the same vogue, like Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine and Elevator Repair Service’s more recent Gatz, spring from higher boards.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema review of "Early Plays" - Wooster Group at REDCAT in LAIn these three brooding-young-man plays about the freighter Glencairn‘s mopey crew, the characters are broadly drawn, the situations fragmentary and without tension.  They are little more than sketches, the type of earnest, autobiographical early effort that nobody reads or mounts except to get a dissertation.  And that kind of scholarship is really what’s on display in this production.  Mr. Maxwell’s commitment to neutrality comments on the nature of the storytelling process, but does not always enhance it: here O’Neill becomes the Young Artist, the nascent genius struggling toward chops, without benefit of a staging designed to assist his raw words.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema review of "Early Plays" - Wooster Group at REDCAT in LASo when an actor pronounces his role phonetically but does not go so far as adopting dialect (the effect can be jarring); when an Edwardian sailor uses a MacBook to cue sound effects; when an entire play is staged as far as possible upstage and jammed into the stage right wing, almost to obscure it from sight in order to rob the drama of emotional impact: when the show is essentially a complex game for the players, what’s in it for the audience?  At its best, this style of show can transcend text and context.  And it is a point of pride that our culture can boast such a fully realized, high-end obscure object.  But an in-joke isn’t funny from the outside, and audiences had better give a damn about minutiae before committing to this experience.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema review of "Early Plays" - Wooster Group at REDCAT in LAAs a nod to the Wooster Group’s history with O’Neill, and perhaps to put his stamp on that history, Mr. Maxwell has staged Early Plays on more or less the same set designed by Jim Clayburgh and Wooster director Elizabeth LeCompte for the 1990s productions of The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape.   This sophisticated gesture says much about the insularity of the experiment.  Compare the $50 REDCAT ticket with the fact that when Jerzy Grotowski dove fully into theoretical investigations, he did it in isolation.  His final decade’s theatrical experiments were never intended for public exhibition and never had any, because there are some things it doesn’t make sense to do in front of an audience.

photos courtesy The Wooster Group

Early Plays
Wooster Group & New York City Players
REDCAT in downtown
scheduled to end on February 24, 2013
for tickets, call 213-237-2800 or visit http://www.redcat.org/

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