BY Tim Etchells in Reviews | 11 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

The Wooster Group

BY Tim Etchells in Reviews | 11 NOV 96

In recent times The Wooster Group seems to be sticking closer and closer to the theatrical texts from which its projects begin. Following Brace Up!, Fish Story and Finished Story (each working closely with Chekhov's Three Sisters) the group's most recent production The Hairy Ape is a high-speed but nonetheless complete and undiluted staging of Eugene O'Neill's 1921 play. The days of collage and mixed sources, the drawing in of autobiography, improvisatory text, material from vaudeville, stand-up, TV transcripts, film scripts it seems are gone, though the stylistic influences on the work continue to look beyond western theatre - to Kabuki and, most notably, to film.

Employing a variation of the group's 'usual' set - platforms, a hydraulic back wall, monitors (this time beneath the stage, so our view of them is interrupted) - The Hairy Ape is a highly polished, pyrotechnical rendering of the O'Neill play. Its themes, especially the determination of gender and class identity in industrialising society, are here brutally exaggerated, deployed as jokes but then allowed to linger - proving to be maybe not so funny after all.

In terms of its deployment of aural texture, the The Hairy Ape can be seen as some sort of theatrical milestone. The voices (all transmitted via microphones) are treated and vocoded at every opportunity - made to sound distant, echoing or shrill with an attention to detail unheard of this side of a radio play. These tricks serve to separate the voices most absolutely from the sumptuously lit bodies on-stage whilst a parallel series of sound-synch gags - in which sampled crashes, bangs and censor-bleeps stand in for stage-punches, thrown bottles and swearwords - serve further to alienate physicality from 'real' sound, action from its consequence.

The combination of this with the exaggerated vocal playing style (somewhere between Popeye and Robocop) and the original expressionistic 'vernacular' of O'Neill's writing ('De Bible huh? De Capt'alist class, huh? Aw nix on dat Salvation Army Socialist bull? Git a soap-box! Aw g'wan...') make Hairy Ape a battering experience in which the meaning of language takes a back seat to its texture.

The Hairy Ape has all the hallmarks of the Wooster's recent work - hot on sound, tight on control, highly skilled, lit like a movie. But there are times when the play's theme - of man at once defined and bound by technology - seems more than manifest in the staging itself, which continues to struggle admirably with that common question of contemporary theatre, namely, how can you still do things when you can't move away from your microphone? From Willem Dafoe wearing boxing shorts, a radio microphone taped into his fist through to Dafoe later, head thrown back, roaring directly into a huge steel boom mike, the lasting image of the piece is of bodies and technology in a brutal hybrid relationship. In these moments director Elizabeth LeCompte echoes the industrial determinism of O'Neill with more contemporary technologies of creation and determination - film, video and digital media.

I'm left with two reservations about this piece. Firstly, the Wooster Group has always seemed to tread a strange line between cynical quotation and a kind of weird psychic (or psychological) investment in its material, but there now seems to be less and less of the latter communicated and more of the former. Contemporary events are nodded to and performances reach a kind of taut fever pitch, but there's no space created in this work, at least, not the sort of depth or reflection that the late Ron Vawter or even Anna Kholer brought to Brace Up! Secondly, a curious thing is beginning to happen to the notion of process in this performance. Staging single texts without the device of cut-ins, interruptions from other material or exterior voice-overs, leaves the narrative line of The Hairy Ape intact, with the group visible only insofar as they service the narrative within its own rules. Of course one is always aware of the second narrative track - that of the actors making their way through the piece, of which LeCompte has written and spoken so clearly - but the opportunities to glimpse this, or for her to deploy it strategically are much more limited here. In fact, one might argue that the group (or the second narrative) is no more visible here than it is in any theatre, as a matter of ontology. For once it makes sense to compare LeCompte's production of the piece to other recent productions of the same text. I know that's what literary theatre culture is all about, but it's not the really interesting part.