Wooster Group Not Tempted by Conventionality: The experimental-theater troupe has jumbled-up Flaubert for its `Frank Dell's the Temptation of St. Anthony.'
Wearing dark glasses, sandals and a bathrobe, the central character of "Frank Dell's the Temptation of St. Anthony" stands under a spotlight muttering into a microphone. Calling out instructions to an unseen engineer, he obsessively plays and replays scenes from a cable-TV nude talk show visible on a row of monitors above his head, dubbing in all the voices himself like a video ventriloquist. The dialogue these embarrassed-looking nudists spout ranges from banal chitchat to metaphysical ruminations.

What is going on here?

To help decode this mystifying tableau, the program has provided a few clues.

"Frank Dell," it turns out, was a name sometimes used by the late stand-up comic Lenny Bruce. "The Temptation of St. Antony" is

Gustave Flaubert's 1874 dramatic poem about the 3rd-Century saint who spent most of his life fasting in the desert.

Logic has it that the actor on stage is some combination of the two and the weird pictures on the TV set must be the profane comic's drug-induced hallucinations mixed with the hermetic saint's hunger-induced visions.

So far, so good. But the stage is full of other bizarre elements. What's that crazy cocktail piano music all about? Who are those three women doing corny magic routines, quoting Stevie Nicks and performing their "Queen of Sheba" dance? And what about the video of a bunch of exotically dressed people in a hotel room standing around a corpse and poking it with a stick?

Ladies and gentlemen, it's the Wooster Group.

After winning acclaim during the 1987 Los Angeles Festival with "The Road to Immortality: Part Two (. . . Just the High Points . . .)," the New York-based experimental-theater troupe returns to Los Angeles this week for six performances of "Frank Dell's the Temptation of St. Anthony," the conclusion of its "Road to Immortality" trilogy. Presented by the Los Angeles Festival in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Temporary Contemporary, the five performances at MOCA beginning Friday are already sold out.

The Wooster Group is something of a curiosity, revered by a fanatical cult following yet largely unknown to mainstream audiences-perhaps contemporary theater's counterpart to the Grateful Dead.

Part of the group's mystique derives from its sheer longevity as one of the few theater companies in America that have stuck together for more than a decade.

The evolutionary outgrowth of Richard Schechner's Performance Group, one of the foremost Off-Broadway theaters of the 1960s, the Wooster Group is a mixed-media ensemble of five principle actors, designer Jim Clayburgh, and numerous associates, all under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte. Together, they have created seven major theater pieces since 1975 in a career fueled by controversy and contradiction.

Hometown critics have been decidedly cool to the group's visually oriented, aggressively non-narrative work, yet it has been hailed at festivals across Europe as the pride of the American theater.

Charges of racism arising from the group's use of blackface in "Route 1 & 9" (Part 1 of "The Road to Immortality") led to a reduction of its funding from the New York State Council for the Arts in 1982, yet the Wooster Group was one of the first recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts' Ongoing Ensembles grants aimed at supporting long-term theatrical collaborations.

The company creates and premieres its work at a tiny converted garage in New York's SoHo district, yet three of its members have become renowned in motion pictures: Spalding Gray ("Swimming to Cambodia"), Willem Dafoe ("Platoon," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Wild at Heart"), and Ron Vawter ("sex, lies, and videotape").

Those who saw the Wooster Group in 1987 will be familiar with the company's fast-paced, exhilarating, abrasive theatrical collage.

". . . Just the High Points . . ." juxtaposed the teachings of Timothy Leary-fractured through the reminiscences of his suburban Boston baby-sitter Ann Rower-with a fast-forwarded adaptation of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."

For all its playfulness and disjointed narrative, ". . . Just the High Points . . ." seriously examined American culture's spiritual malaise, the erosion of moral certainty in the search for higher consciousness. In its multilayered structure "St. Anthony" perpetuates the same theatrical style.

"For me, there are many connections between the two pieces," LeCompte says. "I'm writing with the same vocabulary. In some ways I've shifted-it's like I'm not using a ballpoint this time but a scroll pen-but all the same essential ideas are there."

In some ways, nothing quite prepares viewers for the spectacle of "St. Anthony." Unlike the established American classics that other Wooster group pieces were based on, ("Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Our Town," "The Crucible"), Flaubert's densely poetic, virtually unstageable drama about the 3rd-Century saint will be obscure to the vast majority of theatergoers.

As if Flaubert's mad fantasia of the hermit saint were not enough, LeCompte and her actors have jumbled up the text with two other sources. The storyline comes from Ingmar Bergman's film, "The Magician," in which a troupe of second-rate magicians escape from house arrest when they're asked to perform for the King of Sweden.

The real guiding spirit of the piece is Lenny Bruce, whose stand-up routines and passages from Albert Goldman's biography make their way into the piece.

If controversy attends the Wooster Group in Los Angeles, it may center on the question of what this all-white group from New York is doing in the midst of a festival celebrating Pacific cultures.

The connection would probably be clearer if, as originally intended, the group were supplementing performances of "St. Anthony" with previews of its work-in-progress, "Brace Up," an adaptation of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" that incorporates Japanese theater techniques and Pacific Island dances from Wallis and Futuna. The original plan was for the festival and the museum to present the complete "Road to Immortality" trilogy, as well as "Brace Up." Practical considerations -- lack of money -- intervened.

From the beginning, the Wooster Group had the only connection really necessary to be part of the 1990 Los Angeles Festival: director Peter Sellars, who did some fast, last-minute fund-raising when budget cuts threatened to remove the Wooster Group from the festival lineup altogether.

A longtime champion of their work, Sellars has presented the company during his directorships of the Boston Shakespeare Company and the American National Theater in Washington; it was, in fact, Sellars who proposed that the group undertake to stage Gustave Flaubert's "The Temptation of St. Antony."

"Oddly," LeCompte says, "I think this piece will be more understandable to people in Los Angeles than in New York." In California, she explains, spiritual fulfillment and movie stardom are pursued with equal ardency.

"The other side of Flaubert's Europe is Hollywood, and I always felt this piece formed an arc between the two poles. 

"Of all the pieces we've done, this is the most polarized in its cultural references. I've set two systems against one another: Hollywood image-making, television, pop culture, where what you see is what you get; and high culture of Europe, the examination of the spiritual idea.

"You have Hilarion the devil played on video by Willem Dafoe floating around working as an actor, and Flaubert's St. Anthony, a spiritual man questing in a cave someplace in Egypt. Somewhere, for me, the circle is completed."

As an ensemble, the Wooster Group has the luxury of spending months at a time developing their work, but even by such leisurely standards, "St. Anthony" had a longer gestation period: eight months of rehearsal spread over three years.

It came out of asking the hardest questions, LeCompte says: "Questions so hard, I can't find the words for them. They have to do with the spirit and the flesh, death and lust, what you believe in and how you believe. In `St. Antony,' Flaubert is obsessed with death, so I got obsessed with death in a sensual way, loving it, embracing it. Looking back now, we can't believe we did it."

The Los Angeles Times, Aug 27, 1990

see review here

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