While Arthur Miller has been rewriting the book of Genesis for the Jewish Rep and dusting off Death of a Salesman for Broadway, Elizabeth LeCompte has been busy reinventing The Crucible for our time. The 50-minute version LeCompte and the Wooster Group are presenting at the Performing Garage under the title LSD (Part One) has nothing to do with the Miller classic usually associated with high school drama departments, always hungry for plays with lots of roles for little girls, or with somber Lincoln Center-type revivals that plod along laboriously registering every correspondence between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy hearings. No, as the title suggests, this is more like The Crucible on acid: half the time you can't believe what you're seeing.

The principals sit at microphones on a long, somehow sinister steel-gray table. Ron Vawter plays the witch-hunting Reverend Hale as a splenetic prosecuting attorney who exchanges double-time gobbledygook with court official Danforth, played by Matthew Hansell, an urchinn who's 15 and looks 10. Spalding Dray's Reverend Parris with his underwater goggles and Eraserhead haircut looks exactly like the sort of preacher who wuld hide in the bushes for years on the chance that ne day he might spy some naked girls dancing. And Kate Valk triumphantly impersonates the play's two maidservants in her notorious Aunt Jemima blackface from Route 1 & 9, hilarious and terrifying as the holy-rolling Tituba and bugging her eyes out to Jim Clayburgh's weird, woozy sound effects as Mary Warren trying to faint on demand. Just as the Wooster Group found the essences of The Cocktail Party, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Our Town in surrealistic deconstructions of those plays, their Crucible doesn't just represent the hysteria that Miller's play dramatizes but reproduces it among the actors and audience, in keeping with the fierce visions -- hallucinations? -- of LeCompte, whose company is one of the last experimental theaters in New York.

LeCompte's Crucible, like the larger three-part piece LSD it belongs to, is about hearings and visions, and typically the work is a dialectic between aesthetics and politics. A stage director trained in painting and photography, LeCompte manipulates material as much for how it sounds and how it looks as for what it means, which gives her productions layers of irony. In Route 1 & 9 she used vivaciously mindless blackface routines from vaudeville as a doubled-edged device to both mock and ennoble Our Town's sentiments about mortality. And it was significant that the blackface was performed live, the play on video in soap opera close-ups: each element was a critique of its opposite, equally strong and equally true.

Similarly, with The Crucible LeCompte lets the surface play itself while she picks out details she likes. her approach takes off from two lines in the play, "The Devil is precise" and "The world has gone daft with this madness." Her precise madness has actors chiming in chorus-style on lines that assume the lurid ring of New York Post headlines, and (ever fond of onstage pandemonium) she loves it when the girls go wild. "When I read the stage direction 'The girls scream,' I got the giggles," LeCompte confided after a rehearsal at the Garage last week. "Omigod, a playwright has given me permission for the girls to scream -- everything is all right in the world!" The themes of peRsecution aND paranoia that figure in The Crucible are felt throughout LSD (Part One) even though much of the dialogue is purposely garbled -- the savagely cartoonish acting speaks volumes about the frenzy of flying accusations. And what most interests LeCompte is between the lines anyway: the idea that American society is terrified of people with strong visions about anything from God to politics to art.

Her interest, of course, is intensely personal. The Wooster Group's use of blackface in Route 1 & 9 raised charges of racism that resulted in a loss of state funding for the always-struggling company, and LeCompte understandably felt that her whole way of working as an artist was threatened. "When we did Route 1 & 9, all the questions came up about the artist's responsibility for meaning, the artist's responsibility for social issues, which is what brought me to The Crucible," she said. "When Miller wrote The Crucible, he knew who he was talking about, he knew what the metaphors meant, he knew who was good and who was bad -- he actually knew that! Even now, I can't say what the political intent behind Route 1 & 9 is or whether it was racist, and my inability to say anything about that is disturbing. So I went back to The Crucible to get into his head, to see how he could do that, and then try to reproduce as clearly as I could its intellectual as well as emotional center."

But if LeCompte looked to The Crucible for moral clarity, she finds in it the same anarchy and chaos that runs through the Wooster Group's work. She finds it perversely consoling the believe the Devil is in Massachusetts, notes with interest that only women are said to have seen him, and clearly sides with him against logic, theology, and sex-negativity and in favor of anything (like, in rare instances, theater) that uses dangerous fun to exert mysterious powers over people. "This production has to do with visions, with seeing things other people can't see. it has to do with stepping outside of normal ways of producing imagery, it has to do with conjuring. For instance, people talked about how tin Route 1 & 9 we conjured racism in the room instead of representing the forces of racism and another force of good against racism. That's the way we work -- sometimes we become the thing in order to expiate it, to show it. I trust in my conjuring. I go by instinct. I'm still in touch with what gives me pleasure and pain, and when i feel pleasure and pain I hold onto them and put them together, and I count on something more coming from that."

Eventually,LeCompte plans to collage The Crucible with a film by Ken Kobland based on an album called Timothy Leary, Ph.D. LSD and with excerpts from the debates between Leary and G. Gordon Liddy (to be played by Spalding gray and Ron Vawter). Meanwhile the Wooster Group is rehearsing another new piece called North Atlantic, an obscure take-off on South Pacific written by Jim Strahs, who wrote the Rig section of the group's Point Judith and the novel Wrong Guys, adapted to the stage by Mabou Mines. if all goes well, the complete LSD and North Atlantic will begin playing in rep in February. The only hitch is that, unlike the other playwrights whose works LeCompte has discombobulated in the past, Arthur Miller is very much alive and takes a keen interest in what is done with his work. Until he gives permission to use his words, LSD can't officially open for reviews.

The playwright came to one performance and was apparently impressed if a little shocked -- he thought they were asking for permission to quote some sections of the play, but since they're basically doing the whole play he felt he couldn't give his approval. What the Wooster Group is really asking for, though, are the rights to do the play as if they were mounting a summer-stock production or a musical adaptation. So negotiations are still in progress, and there's always a chance that Miller will decide it would hurt his chances of getting a "first-class" production of The Crucible at (God forbid) Circle in the Square. Of course, such a Grand Old Man should feel honored to be embraced by the avant-garde in his own lifetime and to see his work performed without the musty reverence that usually shrouds classics, in one of the few theaters in New York where something new and exciting is actually happening.

Village Voice, December 13, 1983

Note: Miller subsequently denied the Wooster Group rights to perform The Crucible. The final work, L.S.D. (...Just the High Points...), used a new text created by Michael Kirby to replace Miller's.