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New York performance

Avant garde/rear guard

Donald Pulford on Brook, Foreman, LeCompte

Wooster Group, House/Lights Wooster Group, House/Lights
Wooster Group, House/Lights

In investigating fundamentals of performance, Peter Brook, Richard Foreman and Elizabeth LeCompte have maintained their reputations as theatre innovators over long careers.

Peter Brook, at 80 years old and with a 60-year career, is the oldest and most venerated of them all, the most influential director in the world. His The Empty Space is theatre gospel. Historic productions include Marat/Sade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Conference of the Birds and The Mahabharata. Though he has made a vast and varied contribution to the theatre, he is most frequently associated with a cross-cultural quest to discover universals in human performance. His interpretations of Shakespeare combine psychological insight, incandescent intelligence and a sublime imagination.

Richard Foreman has been making theatre for 37 of his 67 years. Early in the development of his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, founded in 1968, Foreman’s interest in phenomenology produced a theatre that isolated objects and moments, concentrating focus and stretching time. Performers emotionlessly going through movements to the sound of flat voices over the loudspeakers, buzzers sounding within and between speeches, and ludicrous intrusions into stage action were among devices promoting Brechtian distance. Over time, the interruptions and non sequiturs became increasingly strong aspects of his work as he focused on realising his own trains of thought on stage. Most recently, Foreman has used theatre to consider aspects of contemporary culture.

Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group came about in 1980, growing out of Richard Schechner’s Performing Group, founded in 1967. The associative construction of performances, the alienating devices, the director’s meticulous control of all action, light and sound on stage have much in common with Foreman’s work. The collisions of texts drawn from high and low culture, classic texts and material drawn from improvisation, and juxtapositions of live performance and technology characterise the Wooster Group’s more recent work. Director Peter Sellars has described the work as “high-energy, show-biz media-blitzed theatrical grandslam.”

Peter Brook

Peter Brook and his company presented Tierno Bokar at Columbia University where Brook was an artist-in-residence. (How difficult it is to imagine an Australian university having the resources or the will to pursue such a residency!) Set in 1930s Mali, the play tells the true story of an Islamic mystic who demonstrates the courage of his convictions when he refuses to change his religious practice to fit the dictates of a more powerful sect. As a result, he is rejected by his fellows and left to die alone.

Tierno Bokar recalls another portrait of steadfastness, Robert Bolt’s depiction of Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons, but while Bolt’s More had more than a touch of ego, the holy man in Brook’s production is all gentleness and humility. He says on several occasions, ‘’There are three truths; my truth, your truth and the truth.”

The floor of Barnard College’s gym appears covered in dust for the show. There is an exquisite and characteristic minimalism to staging and gesture. Sticks suggest struggling trees. Two musicians at the side of the area provide wind and percussion for the action. Everything is essential and maximally expressive.

There is no rushing, either. Tierno Bokar is not so much the telling of a story as the staging of a quality; peaceful humility. The meditative pace takes at least some of the audience into a zone in which there are quite different relationships to time and space than the ones we are accustomed to in the West, especially in a city such as New York. At the end of the performance I saw, there was a very, very long silence before tumultuous applause began.

Richard Foreman

Richard Foreman’s The Gods Are Pounding My Head (AKA Lumberjack Messiah) is an endgame in at least 2 senses. Before it opened, Foreman announced his retirement from the theatre he has been making for over 3 decades. The Gods is also an elegy for a culture slipping from sight, leaving the sort of wasteland described by Beckett and Eliot.

The set is vintage Foreman. A steam engine protrudes from a wall. Golden planets with Roman letters around their equators hover among medieval chandeliers with doves hanging from them. The stark utility of industrial chutes is balanced by a whimsical playground slide. Valve arteries protrude from a giant, heart-like planet. Biblical tablets are blank. There are the trademark crossed wires and transparent shields, in case we forget about the 4th wall and whose show this is. Inhabiting the set is a chorus in Ottoman pantaloons, German helmets (complete with cross) and 60s sunglasses. The Exodus, changes to the conception of the universe, the Crusades, the Industrial Revolution and 60s youth culture are among the cultural disruptions thus evoked. Rationality/science and intuition/religion are also in the mix, as are ignorance, innocence and experience.

The director’s note in the programme reveals the reason for the myriad cultural associations. In it Foreman alleges the passing of “the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West” and “the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available’”, he describes this “new self” as needing “to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become ‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere press of a button.” He speculates whether this will “produce a new kind of enlightenment or ‘super-consciousness’”, professing himself sometimes optimistic and sometimes shrinking “back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.”

There is much here in common with Eliot’s regrets about modernity and, indeed, the 2 bewildered lumberjacks at the centre of the piece are hollow men for whom, ignorant of its cultural riches, their environment is a wasteland. Far from being destructive figures, they are incapable of using their axes. For them, “Between the conception/ And the creation/ Between the emotion/ And the response/ Falls the Shadow” of something like ennui or exhaustion.

At the end of the play, mushrooms sprout as characters drink a ‘magic elixir’ that might be a regenerative liquid, like the wine symbolising the blood of Christ or a suicidal potion. The clang of falling cups as the lights fade suggests the latter and confirms the aptness of Foreman’s description of The Gods as an “elegiac” product of “anguish.”

Elizabeth LeCompte & The Wooster Group

While Foreman’s piece is unusually dour for him, the Wooster Group’s House/Lights, first performed in 1998, is especially zany. The show juxtaposes two texts linked by their treatment of power and pursuit, “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights”, a 1938 libretto by Gertrude Stein, and Olga’s House of Shame, a 1964 B-grade lesbian crime thriller.

In its use of technology in performance, House/Lights has much in common with other recent Wooster work such as The Hairy Ape that came to the Melbourne Festival. Not only are there bells and whistles but clanging platforms, cameras, TVs, headsets, voice manipulations and interminglings of live and recorded action, pop culture and high culture. There is a joyous playfulness to House/Lights. It provides frenetic fun for the audience and its techno-business is impressive. But ultimately it is rather shallow along lines suggested by Foreman. With sufficient cultural background and a lot more motivation, his lumberjacks might have made this show.

* * *

Considered together, these 3 remarkable theatremakers present an array of pleasures missing from most theatre currently on offer. But it is sobering to recall that these productions have occurred during the drab and dangerous Bush era. Seen in this light, Brook’s poetics, Foreman’s erudite elegy and LeCompte’s wizzbangery may well amount to fiddling in the flames.

CICT,Tierno Bokar, director Peter Brook, Le Frak gymnasium, Barnard College, Columbia University, March-April 26; Ontological Hysteric Theater, The Gods Are Pounding My Head (AKA Lumberjack Messiah), writer-director Richard Foreman, St Mark’s Church, Jan 18-April 17; Wooster Group, House/Lights, director Elizabeth LeCompte, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Feb 2-April 10

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 32

© Donald Pulford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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