New York Magazine

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

A History of Wooster Weirdness

Deconstruction is too gentle a word for what the 32-year-old Wooster Group does to classic plays. Its Hamlet, which transfers to the Public Theater next week, features reenactments of a taped 1964 Richard Burton performance, which is also broadcast on monitors. But the result is relatively coherent—if not exactly faithful. Where does it rank among other Wooster-exploded old chestnuts?

ShareThis


L.S.D. (…JUST THE HIGH POINTS...), (1983)
Based on: Arthur Miller’s anti-censorship allegory The Crucible.
Liberties taken: After Miller threatened to sue the show for its sped-up excerpts of his play (amid readings of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Leary, and reenactments of a rehearsal on acid), the Woosters initially replaced Miller’s words with bleeps and gibberish.
Critics said: Mel Gussow in the Times: “The … send-up of the Arthur Miller play is the only evocative section of a random four-part evening.”


BRACE UP!, (1991)
Based on: Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which has a dead man’s daughters languishing in the provinces.
Liberties taken: Characters dressed in Japanese costumes recite Chekhov into video cameras, their close-ups on monitors intercut with scenes from Godzilla and (in the revival) a video-only performance by Steve Buscemi’s late grandmother.
Critics said: New Statesman: “A truly serious but also absurd show.”


TO YOU, THE BIRDIE! (PHÈDRE), (2002)
Based on: Racine’s own update of a Euripides tragedy about a queen in love with her stepson.
Liberties taken: There’s a high-tech badminton match. And Phèdre has a wheelchair (with a toilet seat). Member Willem Dafoe co-stars.
Critics said: Seattle Times: “Dafoe … should receive a Best Performance Given by a Torso prize.” New York Sun: “Delightful but …wouldn’t offend a stepped-on hornet.”


HOUSE/LIGHTS, (1999)
Based on: Gertrude Stein’s already confusing 1938 opera Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, wherein Faust invents electricity.
Liberties taken: It’s mashed up with a 1964 soft-core S&M movie called Olga’s House of Shame, with shout-outs to Young Frankenstein, I Love Lucy, and a fifties ventriloquist.
Critics said: Ben Brantley: “Turns disorientation into a primary sensual pleasure.”


THE EMPEROR JONES, (1993)
Based on: O’Neill’s 1920 play about a black man who becomes the dictator of a Caribbean island. Noted for its racist stereotypes.
Liberties taken: The lead is played by a white woman in grotesque blackface. (A 1981 Wooster play, also in blackface, had state funding revoked.)
Critics said: Newsday: “Wouldn’t you know, the damn thing works.”


THE HAIRY APE, (1996)
Based on: Eugene O’Neill’s play about a brutish coal-stoker’s disastrous encounter with the upper classes.
Liberties taken: Relatively conventional treatment, with coal dust instead of full blackface (see The Emperor Jones).
Critics said: Robert Brustein, The New Republic: “O’Neill’s underlying pulse and power … have rarely been so potently revealed.”

Photographs: Nancy Campbell/Courtesy of the Wooster Group (L.S.D.); Paula Court/Courtesy of the Wooster Group (House/Lights, The Emperor Jones, Brace Up!); Mary Gearhart/Courtesy of the Wooster Group (To You, The Birdie!, The Hairy Ape)


Related:

Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising