THE SINS OF ST. LENNY: The Wooster Group's Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Antony

When I was still a student visiting from Boston, I once found my way up several steep flights of stairs to a loft on West Broadway (following the recommendation in The Village Voice) to see Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater production of Rhoda in Potatoland. I don't remember much of what I saw that night: several people naked onstage, including the actress playing Rhoda; people repeatedly taking strings from one side of the stage and attaching them to hooks on the opposite side; someone in a huge potato costume terrorizing Rhoda; the shallow stage space suddenly opening up again and again and again to create unfathomable depth; lots of loud buzzers and bright lights going off, controlled by the director-author, who sat in the front row. What I remember most is that I found it weird, dazzling, and fun. I walked in a daze all the way from Soho to Times Square afterward, my mind reeling with new possibilities of theater, unaccustomed as I was to seeing onstage such concentrated intelligence unafraid to break rules.

Even though I hadn't seen any of Richard Foreman's previous 17 plays and felt like I was coming in too late to catch up, Rhoda in Potatoland opened my eyes to the kind of theater that goes beyond conventional characters and dialogue, conflict and resolution. I became a devotee of "experimental theater" (an expression you don't hear much anymore) and a few years later started showing up at another loft in Soho to see the work that Spalding Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte were putting together with the Performance Group, now the Wooster Group. After the trilogy Three Places in Rhode Island and its epilogue, Point Judith, Gray began channeling his autobiographical musings into comic-philosophical monologues (the best-known is Swimming to Cambodia). Meanwhile, LeCompte's visually based, structuralist sensibility came to the foreground in Route 1 & 9 and L.S.D. (aka ...Just the High Points...), the first two parts of a trilogy now called The Road to Immortality.

Performed by an ensemble of odd yet uncommonly disciplined actors and running on the intellectual energy of radical juxtaposition, this body of work is -- in my humble opinion -- the finest created for the theater in my lifetime. Still, when I've gone back to see Route 1 & 9 or L.S.D. in their periodic revivals, I've often wondered how much of this deep, dense work's evolution would be evident to someone encountering the Wooster Group for the first time.

With Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Antony, which concludes The Road to Immortality, LeCompte and the Wooster Group have returned me to my Potatoland state of bafflement, that dreamlike foreign country where I can read the signs but I don't understand what they say. In a way, that's an impressive achievement; I like theater that challenges me to work harder, be smarter. (If I wanted something comfortable that tells me what I already know, I'd stay home and watch TV or read Anne Tyler.) It reminds me that there are many works of art that can't be explained but have to be experienced. This is especially true of those that confront basic contradictions of life, whether Waiting for Godot or a painting by Anselm Kiefer. But in the presence of truth, there is frequently joy. Frank Dell just feels morose.

Director LeCompte has structured each part of The Road to Immortality around some yin-yang polarity, embodied by the clash of a dramatic classic with a comic figure from pop culture. In Route 1 & 9, it was black-white, Our Town and Pigmeat Markham. In L.S.D., it was good-evil, The Crucible and Timothy Leary. The new piece grapples with the dichotomy of spirit and flesh, and it takes as its text The Temptation of St. Antony, Flaubert's 1874 dramatic poem about the visionary third-century monk, as squeezed through the drug-addled brain of Lenny Bruce (who early in his career used the pseudonym Frank Dell).

The setup -- in which Frank obsessively plays and replays the videotape of a Channel J-type nude talk show, dubbing in all the voices incongruously spouting Flaubert's moral-philosophical dialogue -- is brilliant. Besides spotlighting a virtuosic performance by Wooster Group stalwart Ron Vawter, it reveals LeCompte's gift for conceiving dialectical structures. Equating Lenny Bruce's profane truth-telling and St. Antony's delirious spiritual quest, alternately elevating and puncturing them, she makes us look again and again at the mind-body split, shifting the balance each time. Is intellect just a mask to hide the real truth, the bestial human body? Or is the body just a vehicle, a gross receptacle for the soul? Throughout the piece, the twin themes of spirit and flesh twine around each other, forever separate, forever linked.

LeCompte has overloaded this elegant structure, though, with several other elements. While Vawter's Lenny Bruce act goes on center stage, Nancy Reilly as Sue stands off to one side behind a tiny dressing-room screen reading from psychic Geraldine Cummins' 1932 book, The Road to Immortality (which Lenny Bruce had his secretary read to him not long before his death, according to Albert Godlman's biography). A video monitor overhead shows elliptical scenes from Ken Kobland's film Flaubert Dreams of Travel But the Illness of His Mother Prevents It, in which a group of exotically dressed people in a hotel room stand around a naked corpse and poke it with a stick. Meanwhile, several other performers (led by the increasingly witchlike Kate Valk and Peyton Smith) enact a scattershot narrative having something to do with a disintegrating theater troupe; although some of this story was specially written for the group by Jim Strahs, the dialogue also mixes in liberal quotations from Goldman's Lenny Bruce book and Ingmar Bergman's film The Magician (including two corny magic routines), as well as previous Wooster Group pieces. Willem Dafoe shows up on "videophone" as an actor named Cubby Mills, who speaks with an English accent; he also appears as Jesus, both Flaubert's and Martin Scorsese's (on video we see Dafoe's picture on the cover of some European magazine alongside the words Jesu and scandolo). Then there are numerous "dance breaks" and musical interludes, including an a capella rendition of "Just Before the Battle, Mother."

How these pieces fit together is unclear. As layer piles upon layer, the work as a whole begins to seem like a perverse Dada exercise, like Kurt Schwitters or Jack Smith rooting around in an accumulation of junk, oblivious to the audience.

Typical for the Wooster Group, what's most maddening about the work is also conceivably the most provocative: the way the narcissism and self-absorption of actors barely conceals a deep self-hatred. It's a subject the Wooster Group has touched on before, in the seemingly innocuous dance piece Hula (the virtually naked Vawter, Dafoe, and Valk grinning and jiggling in grass skirts, parodying actors' eagerness to please) and in the finale of L.S.D. (the same actors doing an absurd Mexican hat dance while a withering voice intoned, "What is this, dancing?"). Clearly, The Road to Immortality is in some sense the autobiography of the company, which in recent years has lost funding over charges of racism, been shut down for appropriating sections of The Crucible in L.S.D., and had to maneuver its working schedule around Hollywood's demands on two crucial members, Gray and Dafoe. (Vawter's next -- his landing a major role in the new Paul Newman movie interrupted the scheduled run of this show.) The wear and tear shows. I guess what I've called Frank Dell's moroseness has to do with the resentment it expresses at an actor's uncertain lot, its raw anger at the precariousness of theater, always on the verge of self-destruction.

LeCompte's work with the Wooster Group has always subscribed to the values of postmodern architecture, as articulated by Robert Venturi: "richness and ambiguity over unity and clarity, contradiction and redundancy over harmony and simplicity." But it has never more stubbornly resisted easy apprehension. By bouncing her thematic ideas off such an obscure text as Flaubert's and by constantly subordinating storytelling to interruption, LeCompte has created a work that's even less like a cogent theater work than ever and more like a big, unwieldy, impenetrable Bosch-like canvas. Where past Wooster Group pieces paid off the audience's attentiveness with more stripped-down structures and more exhilarating performances, Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Antony is bound to be a puzzling, frustrating experience for devotees and novices alike.

7 Days, 1988


Strong experimental theater often repays return visits -- good radical work is bound to be hard to digest at first sight. I had seen the Wooster Group's Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Antony three times when I reviewed it here last November. Since the company, under Elizabeth LeCompte's direction, has continued to develop the piece, I went back to see it when it reopened recently and had an entirely different experience. In my review I used words like "frustrating," "morose," and "perverse" to describe the work's multilayered, aggressively anti-narrative structure. This time, when I gave up trying to make sense of it, everything became clear. In fact, it seemed perfect.

Ordinarily I'm skeptical of the don't-judge-go-with-the-flow approach. But in this case I suddenly understood that LeCompte has purposely created something that defies definition except in its own terms. She and the company have invented a perfectly mysterious event that can't be reduced to reviewer-ese. An aesthete's meditation on mortality conflating the life of Lenny Bruce with Flaubert's mad fantasia about the third-century saint, Frank Dell takes its theatrical form from biblical tapestries or Oriental paintings that tell several stories simultaneously. Simultaneity -- of sin and virtue, glory and worthlessness, sound and vision -- becomes the key motif. Expect to be baffled and dazzled, especially by Ron Vawter's bravura central performance; moviegoers who've gotten a taste of him as the shrink in sex, lies, and videotape (and the soon-to-be-released Fat Man and Little Boy) have a feast in store.

7 Days, 1989