NEW YORK — IN an extraordinary number of Japanese films, director Peter Sellars noted recently, there comes a moment when the main character - often, but not always, a samurai warrior - is laid low by the enemy. The hero or heroine falls into despair, weeping bitter tears. At exactly this moment a loyal disciple rushes in, bends over the great one, and utters a long, impassioned speech - which is invariably translated by the subtitles in two meager words: ``Brace up!'' This, according to Mr. Sellars, is where the Wooster Group found the title of its new theater piece in progress. ``Brace Up!'' was previewed a few weeks ago at the Performing Garage - the troupe's home base - as part of ``Works and Process,'' a series sponsored by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum here.
Sellars was present not as a creator of the new piece, but as a close friend of the Wooster Group, which shares his view of theater as a means of peering beyond the physical world and glimpsing moral, psychological, even spiritual insights that ``realistic'' art rarely uncovers.
It's too early to know for sure whether ``Brace Up!'' will measure up to the Wooster Group's best work in the past, such as ``Three Places in Rhode Island,'' its legendary avant-garde trilogy of the 1970s. The company often takes a couple of years bringing a work from early rehearsals to completion, and while it presents its unfinished shows as ``works in progress,'' it's rare for a piece to be performed publicly when still near the beginning of this long process. But the group has developed such an eager following - and does such stimulating things when preparing its future presentations - that its ``Brace Up!'' previews attracted large and enthusiastic audiences.
What the piece has in common with all Wooster Group works is a post-modern interest in the ``layering'' of various cultural artifacts onto one another. In its current state, ``Brace Up!'' involves a Japanese theater group (played by Wooster performers) presenting Anton Chekhov's great Russian drama ``The Three Sisters,'' punctuated by minimalist music and dances with a South Pacific flavor.
As work continues on ``Brace Up,'' new elements may be added and old ones - even those that seem most important now - may be pared down or discarded. What's left when the show is finished will be a dense collage of visual, verbal, and musical ingredients. Even the smallest of these (as Sellars pointed out before one of the previews) will have a long and complex development process behind it, giving it a ``center of gravity'' that's far more rich and imposing than it could ever have been in isolation from the rest of the work.
This doesn't mean ``Brace Up!'' will automatically reach the heights of experimental theater. But there's a good chance that it will, given the collection of talented artists who work on Wooster Group productions. Like all the troupe's shows, it is being directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, perhaps the boldest and most brilliant director on today's non-Broadway theater scene. (Sellars, a sometime collaborator with the group, heads a list of runners-up that includes such artists as Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman.)
The cast of ``Brace Up!'' includes several performers who have mastered the difficult art of investing unconventional roles (often nonlinear and nonlogical in nature) with the same degree of intellectual and emotional conviction that realistic parts usually aspire to have.
Willem Dafoe has a busy film career - his movies include the recent ``Triumph of the Spirit'' and the new ``Wild at Heart,'' due this fall - and he tells me he won't appear in ``Brace Up!'' throughout its development period; yet he contributed his usual eloquence to the preview and will probably return to the work when it's nearing completion. Ron Vawter stood out magnificently, as he always does, in an allusive role. Others onstage included Wooster regulars Kate Valk, Anna Kohler, and Peyton Smith, as well as old Wooster friends Joan Jonas, Michael Stumm, and Elion Sacker. Music for ``Brace Up!'' is by John Lurie and Lawrence ``Butch'' Morris, and the settings are being developed by Jim Clayburgh, the troup's gifted designer.
The early signs are very promising for the finished product: The show has a winningly gentle, even fragile quality as well as the characteristically pungent Wooster humor.
I look forward to charting its progress in future months. ``Brace Up!'' now travels to more work-in-progress performances at the Los Angeles Festival in September, the Vienna Festival, and the Glasgow 1990 Festival. Its completed version is slated for a premi`ere at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis next spring.