Poor Imitations

Sheena See, Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos, and Scott Shepherd in Poor Theater. Copyright Paula Court

Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but with the Wooster Group’s latest, Poor Theater, one can’t help but question its sincerity. Which is, of course, exactly the point. Legendary director Jerzy Grotowsky coined the term “poor theater” to describe the performative approach developed with the Polish Laboratory Theater. His hieratic methodology – in which not just the stage but also the actor’s psyche is stripped bare – is surely antithetical to the hi-tech hijinks of the Wooster Group. Nor is the performance group—whose casts often feature financially flush stars like (founder) Willem Dafoe, or (associates) Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand—any more a place for “starving artists” than the street for which it is named.

However, with their latest piece, the Group gropes its way back through history—to a time of, yes, humbler means, early influences and near as early rebellions. The company emerged, after all, from the shell of the Performance Group, itself led by Richard Schechner, a key American champion of Grotowsky’s work and techniques, whose Dionysus in 69 (a landmark work of the late sixties hippie theater aesthetic) was the culmination of this influence. The Wooster Group was formed as a reaction from within against the Grotowsky-inspired techniques of the Performance Group, and ultimately took over their space.

Kate Valk, Sheena See, Scott Shepherd, and Ari Fliakos in Poor Theater. Copyright Paula Court

So, are the Wooster group conjuring up the ghosts of their house, and shedding their technical baggage to go back to their roots? Although Grotowski does figure prominently in Poor Theater, the piece (though it is all about play, the term “play” doesn’t fit) marks no such departure; almost perversely, it instead depends and furthers the Group’s exploration of the interface between technology and identity construction, and the limits of theatrical limitation.

With nowhere near the amount of technoclutter usually littered throughout their playspace, the piece opens with video (on one of three flatscreens on stage) of the Group watching video footage of Grotowski at work. Immediately the simulacra unfold: the live audience watching the actors on video, watching other actors on video. Presence is already deferred. Instead of the traditional theatrical plea to suspend our disbelief and escape into the illusion of time and place, the work opens with documentation of their working methods. A voiceover explains: “The company imagines what it might be like to adopt the Polish company’s daily routine.”

Scott Shepherd, Ari Fliakos, and Kate Valk in Poor Theater. Copyright Paula Court

The “live” actors appear in the playspace seamlessly with the video, as they recreate their trip to the Polish Laboratory Theater’s work/playspace in 2003 – clandestinely recorded on minidisc (naughty, naughty!). Kate Valk adopts a Polish accent to play their tour guide, and Sheena Shee plays her own director, (Wooster Group founder) Elizabeth LeCompte, who takes notes and reminisces about having visited the same space decades ago. She (and is it Shee as LeCompte or Shee as Shee?) becomes excited by their parquet floor, “an awfully rich floor for a poor theater.” We then see (on video) Wooster Group techs trying to replicate the parquet floor, but it doesn’t appear on the live set.

The next “live” scene features Ari Fliakos playing a Polish actor who is watching the Grotowski video with the company, stopping every few seconds to translate the poetic idioms of the symbolist poet Wyspianski’s Akropolis—the text material for the performance on the video. Though it is funny to hear Fliakos struggle with phrases like “cemetery of the tribes” in broken English, it is somewhat troubling when you consider that Wyspianski’s play is set in Cracow Cathedra on the night of the Resurrection, the actors representing moments from the Bible and antiquity. It is even more troubling if you know that Grotowski adapted his production so that the actors filter their representations through the suffering at Auschwitz.

This becomes all the more problematic in the next section, when the Group attempts to represent the last twenty minutes of Akropolis, imitating a video of the production. In an interview in the Rail (April 2004), concurrent with Poor Theater’s run as a “work-in-progress,” Fliakos admits that setting the piece in the Holocaust, as Grotowski did, was something that the Group “didn’t want to tackle head-on,” but hoped that perhaps “it would filter through via the ritual of conjuring up the performance.” The problematic result is that, as Fliakos, Valk and Shepherd gyrate and scream, most of the audience laugh. Obviously, the filter was too diffusing, the effect much too distorted, and any reference to the Holocaust is lost in translation. Who is to blame: the company or the audience? The piece invites these questions, incorporating a conversation with  critic-friend of Grotowski’s, who expresses her misgivings over the Group’s intention to recreate Akropolis. Thought Shee (as LeCompte) defends their intentions, insisting, “its no joke,” one can’t help but wonder.

Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk, in Poor Theater. Copyright Paula Court

After intermission, the company reassembles, now imitating the recently defunct Ballett Frankfurt, with Scott Shepherd as the choreographer William Forsythe. On screen, he rants about corporate sponsorship and public theater, and emerges in the playspace (again, seamlessly with the video) to give a lecture on his techniques such as points and lines in space, as Fliakos and Valk archly demonstrate. Shepherd’s Forsythe pontificates on how he enjoys having his “eye challenged,” struggling for words to intellectualize what he does with his body and those of his dancers, and how it differs from classical ballet. Shee interviews him and joins them in an improvisation on cowboy movies. As the not-really-dancers really throw themselves about, the result is hysterical.

The Grotowski and Forsythe “simulacra” come together, then, as explorations of creative processes, and the thin-line between genius and goof—a theme punctuated with a brief coda at the end of the first half on how a parquet floor inspired Max Ernst’s frottages (the only significant addition to the work-in-progress from a year and a half ago). The resul is ultimately one of self-mockery, as they poke fun at aesthetic experimentation. One should know better than expect “authenticity” from the Wooster Group–or, rather, “perfect” imitation.

It is refreshing that they can still be so transgressive. Whether doing Our Town and Emperor Jones in blackface or The Crucible on LSD, the Wooster Group have never been afraid to offend with their re-presentation of others’ work. The laughs emerge with the gaps between the original and the copy. But secretly recording someone and having a laugh at their expense doesn’t feel like fair play, and when actors simulating the anguish of the Holocaust are mimicked for cheap laughs, the imitation seems more like a violation. There is a smug condescension at play that invites the pseudo “I get it” laughter of those who have no idea what is being imitated. Although these poor imitations aren’t very flattering, the Wooster Group can’t be accused of lacking the sincerity of a rigorous engagement, as it is the rigorous approach they take in their simulations that makes the individual performances so remarkable, if unsettling. The Wooster Group certainly take risks, if not responsibility, making Poor Theater a richly provocative work.

Poor Theater runs through October 15th, Tuesdays-Thursdays & Sundays, 8pm ($25), Fridays and Saturdays, 8pm ($30) at the Performing Garage, 33 Wooster Street (between Broome and Grand Streets). Tickets available at (212) 868-4444 or online a www.smarttix.com. For more info, www.thewoostergroup.org.

Contributor

David Kilpatrick

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