For the past few years, Spalding Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte -- members of the unpredictable Performance Group in lower Manhattan -- have been conducting a series of provocative and sometimes stunning theatrical experiments.
In their productions, Gray serves not only as the star, but also as the main character. Along with a small group of actors, and under the supervision of LeCompte, he develops improvisations based on his own memories, experiences, and emotions. Often documentary materials are included, such as tapes, slides, and films. The results range from the involving to the obscure, from the occasionally offensive to the positively brilliant. They are almost always stimulating, inventive, and unexpected.
So far, te magnum opus of Gray and LeCompte is a trilogy called "Three Places in Rhode Island." During the past year, they and their colleagues have been working on an epilogue to that large work. Known as "Point Judith," it has now opened at the group's Performing Garage in SoHo.
Following the tendency of the trilogy itself -- which grew more massive and complicated as it went along -- "Point Judith" is an incredibly dense work. It is also an unfinished work: Opening night was a point of transition for its development, not a point of termination. Like all the Gray-LeCompte collaborations, it is likely to stay in a state of flux as long as it is performed; and comments made in an opening-night review may not apply to later incarnations of the show.
During its first public performance, "Point Judith" had more longuers than is common in the work of Gray and LeCompte. Yet it also contained moments of chilling intensity, and showed the promise of becoming one of their most expansive and evocative pieces. As the "Rhode Island" trilogy dealt largely with femininity, emanating from the character of Gray's deceased mother, so "Point Judith" focuses on masculinity -- exploring the games men play, the macho poses they strike, the vulnerability that lurks within, and the complex web of memory and desire that motivates behavior on every level from the superficial to the profound.
The evening is divided into two parts. The first section is a play by Jim Strahs called "Rig." Its characters are three men and a boy, working on a lonely oil-drilling site in midocean. The men laugh and quarrel and talk about sex, in metaphors so preposterously elaborate as to become nearly unintelligible. Certainly they are incomprehensible to the boy, who represents (among other things) the lost innocence of his grown-up counterparts, and of Gray himself, whose psychological and emotional odyssey this is.
In the course of this playlet, each character breaks away from the action to deliver a prepared "party piece." The boy sings "Danny Boy," for instance, sweetly and simply, bringing out a childlike melancholy even in his boisterous companions. Like much of the show, such gestures do not make much "sense" from a literal point of view; yet it is endlessly expressive.
The rest of "Point Judith" consists of Gray's own "party piece." In the first segment of the evening, Gray played a character named Stew. Now Stew takes on the role of Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" -- all of which is acted out (in condensed form) within about 15 minutes.
This must set some sort of record for playcutting, but there it is: a tape recorder blaring the essential speeches of the drama; the characters huddled in a bizarre little house, variously miming and hollering their roles with the aid of megaphones; and Gray/Stew/Tyrone standing to one side, watching it all unfold. At times he seems to be directing the action, at times he is merely an observer, and at times he is clearly caught up in it. All three of these stances mirror Gray's multileveled involvement in his work with the Performance Group -- as creator, as performer, and as undisguised personality.
Still, the multimedia splendor of "Point Judith" requires no initiation. Nor is there much obscurity to its central themes of memory, masculinity, and the meanings of family and adolescence. As director of the show, LeCompte has reached further than ever for bravura effects involving music, film, costume, and visual allusion -- including apparent allusions to other works of experimental theater, as in the concluding portion, when a bit of onstage construction-work recalls the Living Theater's legendary "Frankenstein."
In any event, The Performance Group is continuing to work in tantalizing new directions. In the third part of the "Rhode Island" trilogy, Gray and company gave us portions of T. S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party," stretched into a thousand shapes and lasting an entire evening. Then Gray moved into a radically simpler vein and offered a series of entertaining hour-long monologues in which he spoke to his audience without a script.
Now he and his cohorts have set yet another course, squashing a great American play -- "Long Day's Journey," with its un" earthly resonances vis-a-vis Gray's own life story -- into one teeming corner of the Performance Group's utterly original vision. "Point Judith" may mark a farewell to the "character" Spalding Gray; certainly this is suggested by the "actor" Spalding Gray's exit from the stage, which is a long Jimmy Durante-style wave goodbye.
Whatever happens next, the Gray/LeCompte plays have made their mark (as could be seen in a recent Performance Group production of Genet's "The Balcony" directed by Richard Schechner, which was full of "Rhode Island"-type mannerisms). One looks forward to the ongoing refinement of "Point Judith" and to the further fireworks it is certain to set off.