It's not easy keeping secrets in New York. Yet for the last decade one of the world's most renowned theater companies has been quietly working out of a loft in SoHo, content to remain the best-kept secret in New York theater. Under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, the seven-member Wooster Group has been producing experimental theater pieces since 1974. Many more people have heard of the Wooster Group than have seen its work, thanks to the famous actors who have emerged from its ranks: the monologist Spalding Gray, Willem Dafoe (most recently seen in "The English Patient"), and the late Ron Vawter (who appeared with Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," among other movies).

The company, which also includes designer Jim Clayburgh and actors Kate Valk and Peyton Smith, commands large, enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews in Europe. Yet for the last ten years it has kept a low profile in New York. The Wooster Group plays to full houses at the Performing Garage (maximum capacity 120) a few months each year. But without the coordinated press coverage that routinely attends theater openings, its shows come and go without penetrating the awareness of the mainstream theatergoing audience. Now, this legendary company is emerging from the underground to show its 1995 production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape," starring Mr. Dafoe, at the Selwyn Theatre on 42nd Street for a nine-week limited run that opens officially on Thursday.

This isn't a scouting expedition before setting up permanent residence under the bright lights of Broadway, though. After pulling up stakes at the Selwyn, the company departs immediately for engagements in Vienna, Frankfurt, and Berlin before returning home to its quiet laboratory on Wooster Street in SoHo.

It's not coincidental that "The Hairy Ape" marks the first time the Wooster Group has performed uptown since 1980, when "Rumstick Road" had a brief run at the American Place Theatre. For one thing, it's probably the most conventional production in the company's repertoire. As a director, Ms. LeCompte creates multilayered theatrical collages, splicing classic plays such as "Our Town" and "The Three Sisters" together with other texts and filtering them through contemporary media technology (film, video, high-tech sound) and non-naturalistic performing styles from vaudeville to Kabuki. Within this mixed-media collage format, the Wooster Group's work examines ideals of morality, community, and spirituality by battering away at them to see if they can survive in a chaotic and unforgiving world.

Consider the company's previous excursions into O'Neill. "Point Judith" (1979), which explored new structures for the family, sandwiched a high-speed excerpt of "Long Day's Journey into Night" between a short play about the all-male crew of an oil rig and a silent film about a group of nuns played by men in drag. In 1993, Ms. LeCompte staged "The Emperor Jones" on a Kabuki-style stage with the title character, a black Caribbean despot, played by a white woman (longtime Wooster Group member Kate Valk) in a samurai costume wearing blackface makeup and speaking into a microphone -- in other words, played through four layers of masks. Unorthodox and classical at the same time, the production demonstrated the peculiarly theatrical power of masks to reveal character.

By contrast, "The Hairy Ape" is simplicity itself. Although it features a battery of sophisticated video and sound effects and a nearly continuous musical score by John Lurie, the production is a straightforward rendition of the O'Neill text. Although the cast of seven create an integral ensemble, the center of the production is clearly Mr. Dafoe's performance in the title role.

Of course, it's also true that "The Hairy Ape" is one of O'Neill's least conventional plays. An early one-act from his expressionist period, "The Hairy Ape" has not been seen in a major production in New York since it premiered at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1922 and subsequently moved to the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway. When it opened, New York Times critic Alexander Woollcott called it "a bitter, brutal, wildly fantastic play of nightmare hue and nightmare distortion." Mr. Dafoe plays Yank Smith, a man who feels he controls the world because he shovels the coal that makes a luxury liner go. But when a spoiled debutante (Ms. Valk) descends to the stokehole in her white dress to see "how the other half lives" and faints at the sight of his rough, grimy appearance, he is forced to recognize a larger world where he will never feel welcome.

"You can say the play is about class and about sex and all kinds of things, but I would say it's about rage. It's about a guy who's having trouble belonging," said Mr. Dafoe, interviewed in a dressing room at the Selwyn. The actor looked both dazed and exhilarated to be sitting in a theater in Times Square 24 hours after finishing his scenes with Nick Nolte in a new Paul Schrader film, "Affliction," shot in snow-drenched Montreal.

"As an actor, as someone who aspires to be an artist, as a guy just living in the world, that dislocation is something I deal with all the time. Although I've got a privileged life full of wonderful opportunities, somewhere deep in my psyche I struggle with that feeling. I try like hell to see my connection to things rather than enhance my separateness. I think we all do. But our response as human beings is often alienation."

Since she considers a playscript as only one element in a collage, Ms. LeCompte is less concerned with what "The Hairy Ape" is about or what it says. "Those are things I don't really examine. I don't examine them mainly because they bore me. I don't know why," she said, sitting at a sewing table upstairs at the Performing Garage, which serves as all-purpose office, costume shop, and equipment warehouse for the Wooster Group.

She looked frail and somewhat frazzled from an intense period of activity. The company recently completed the first stage of rehearsals for a new piece conflates Gertrude Stein's "Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights" with scenes from "Olga's House of Shame," a cheesy 1960s soft-core sex film set in a brothel. (Tentatively titled "House Lights," that piece is scheduled to premiere in October.) Meanwhile, Ms. LeCompte was racing to complete her contribution to the Whitney Biennial -- a 40-minute section of her film "Wrong Guys" -- in time for the opening March 20, the day before "The Hairy Ape" began previews at the Selwyn.

A 52-year-old native of New Jersey, Ms. LeCompte has been working in the theater since 1970, when she and then-partner Spalding Gray joined the Performance Group, the experimental theater collective founded by Richad Schechner in 1967. That company pioneered its own method of collaging classic plays with other literary texts in productions such as "Dionysus in '69," an adaptation of "The Bacchae." After apprenticing as Mr. Schechner's assistant director for five years, Ms. LeCompte began creating her own work with actors from the Performance Group, which in 1980 officially changed its name to the Wooster Group.

The recipient of a 1995 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, Ms. LeCompte describes her creative method as "pragmatic," dedicated to "problem-solving." After doing "The Emperor Jones," in which Mr. Dafoe played a secondary role to Kate Valk, Ms. LeCompte conceived "The Hairy Ape" as a companion piece in which Ms. Valk would support the central performance of Mr. Dafoe (who, incidentally, lives with Ms. LeCompte and their 15-year-old son Jack). "That's how she's kept the company together," Mr. Dafoe commented. "She gives us all very special things to do."

Besides keeping her actors happy, Ms. LeCompte was most concerned with how the show would look and how it would sound. After years of watching the Wooster Group's production "Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Anthony" from backstage, she became mesmerized by the back side of Jim Clayburgh's industrial-looking steel-frame set. "I always thought maybe we could do a sea play on it, because it looked like a boat to me," she recalled. "When I read 'Hairy Ape,' I thought it was perfect for that. The language was attractive to me because it's music. It reads like song lyrics strung together, so it really works with John Lurie's music. I hesitate to say this, because it sounds so au courant, but I listened to a lot of rap music as a model of using language for its rhythm and its repetition as much as its meaning."

Ms. LeCompte's painterly manner of composing theater is precisely what has endeared her to avant-garde theater audiences abroad. "The Wooster Group has profoundly influenced our theater," said Hugo de Greef, artistic director of Kaaitheater in Brussels, the Belgian equivalent of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "They're strongly appreciated for the way they integrate text, video, film, and sound into one dramaturgy, and for their remarkable acting. In our country, Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, and Willem Dafoe are known as great actors."

Mr. de Greef's Kaaitheater was the executive producer for "Brace Up!," the Wooster Group's eerie staging of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" filtered through Japanese stage and film techniques. A massive undertaking years in the making, "Brace Up!" was co-commissioned by six European theaters and three in the United States. It subsequently toured around the world, including to Hong Kong. Although it was shown at the Performing Garage, finished and unfinished, for several years, "Brace Up!" never officially opened for reviews in New York. Neither did "Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Anthony" or "The Emperor Jones." This reticence about press coverage seems like a perverse, if understandable response to an earlier period, when the Wooster Group received condescending reviews from mainstream critics unschooled in experimental theater.

"Initially, I thought it was real crazy not to allow reviewers to come," Mr. Dafoe admitted. "I thought it was making us more and more marginal. We were filling the house up, but it was very underground. But Liz is very wise about these things. She felt that people weren't writing well about the work, and we didn't need them to fill the house, so what's the point? Reviewers would see a Broadway musical one night and then come down to our place without recognizing that we were making a different kind of theater. Keeping a low profile has to do with protecting our idiosyncratic way of developing stuff."

"My personality is not tremendously suited for the theater, which is such a public art form and tends to attract people who like publicity," Ms. LeCompte said. "I might have decided not to be reviewed in New York because the negative response to earlier pieces was so hurtful. But I don't think so. I started as a painter, spending hours and hours alone in a studio. I like working quietly. It's hard to do that if you have a lot of attention focused on you. It's been a good thing for me personally to be able to work here quietly without certain kinds of attention and judgment, and then go away and show the work and get reviewed in a totally other place. It's a kind of schizophrenic existence, but it feels very comfortable to me."

Even in the absence of press coverage, the Wooster Group attracts a devoted following of unusually sophisticated theatergoers. They're the kind of people who may be indifferent to the latest work of Andrew Lloyd Webber or August Wilson and more attentive to visual art and independent film. At the Performing Garage, you're likely to encounter Wim Wenders fans -- or Wim Wenders himself -- sitting next to chic matrons authoritatively discussing Peter Sellars' latest opera production in Salzburg.

For all its SoHo cachet and its movie-star connections, the Wooster Group struggles each year to raise its operating budget of approximately $750,000. As with most not-for-profit theaters, ticket sales account for a tiny fraction of the budget. For the rest, the Wooster Group must rely on the kindness of foundations, public arts funding, and private donors. After all, although he makes generous donations, Mr. Dafoe doesn't sign over his Hollywood paychecks to the company. "I help," he said, adding that his support can extend beyond writing checks. For example, because he appears in an advertising campaign for Prada, the designer donated some clothes to a Wooster Group production.

While putting Willem Dafoe in "The Hairy Ape" and moving it to Broadway might seem like an calculated commercial move, that isn't the way the Wooster Group works. "We were just going to do it as a little chamber piece at the Garage," Ms. LeCompte explained. "But as it developed, the sightlines were very difficult, and I had to knock back the audience to 70 people. With the combination of a big cast and diminished funding from the National Endowment, we were losing money every night."

Enlisting the help of stage and film producer Fred Zollo, the Wooster Group scouted larger spaces until they landed on the Selwyn, a long-shuttered B-movie theater recently taken over by the New 42nd Street project. Typically, the Wooster Group reconfigured the theater to its own specifications, limiting the seating to 480 and the number of performances to 57. "The run at the Selwyn is just a chance to do the piece without losing money," Ms. LeCompte explained, "and hopefully to make enough money so we can finish our next piece. Again, it's pragmatic. It's problem-solving.

"So this isn't a big move by the Wooster Group uptown," she said reassuringly. "We'll disappear again immediately after this."

The New York Times, March 30, 1997

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