Wooster Group defies convention in latest multimedia effort
New York — Nestled on an unassuming street in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, the Performing Garage has become a landmark to theatergoers looking for the new, the untried, and the adventurous. Recent activity has included premieres by the theater's resident company, the Wooster Group, as well as work by visiting artists.
The most controversial has been the Wooster Group's latest major show, ''Route 1 & 9 (The Last Act).'' Directed by the leader of the troupe, Elizabeth LeCompte - in collaboration with the other members, whose remarkable performances are the show's most vital element - this is a typically bold and unpredictable evening of multimedia theater. Public attention has been diverted, however, by one facet of the complex and many-layered work: the fact that parts of it are performed by white actors wearing blackface makeup.
When these portions of the show were first unveiled in a series of ''work in progress'' performances, it seemed clear that they functioned as fierce attacks on racial stereotypes and lingering racist attitudes in American culture. When the work officially opened, however, certain critics attacked it for racism of its own. The situation intensified when the New York State Council on the Arts cut the group's funding by 43 percent, and specified that none of the aid could be used on ''Route 1 & 9,'' citing the work as racist in realization, if not intent.
While the troupe receives other funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and private contributions from Bankers Trust, the New York State action was a heavy blow. As a genuinely noncommercial troupe, committed to artistic integrity rather than box-office profits, the Wooster Group is financially strapped even in the best of times. Moreover, the charge of racism seems misdirected - in view of the material itself, and the company's profoundly humanistic leanings in such past works as ''Sakonnet Point'' and ''Rumstick Road.'' Slashed funds and critical brickbats seem harsh reprisals for the miscalculation (if such it is) of attacking racist attitudes on their own grounds, with the eminently theatrical weapons of satire and sarcasm.
Meanwhile, the show has caught on with audiences, helped by favorable word of mouth from viewers and positive notices from some discerning critics. Its engagement has already been extended more than once, giving ''Route 1 & 9'' a solid niche in Wooster Group history. This doesn't mean it's an easy work to fathom, though. It is complicated, and operates on many levels. Like everything else directed by Miss LeCompte, moreover, it is concerned less with plot and character than with themes, patterns, and visual arrangements. There's more of architecture than of drama to it, though it builds a strong sense of theatrical tension, and its energy is downright astonishing.
The show begins in an upstairs room of the Performing Garage, where the audience watches a hilarious ''educational film'' about the classic drama ''Our Town,'' by Thornton Wilder. Armed with its earnest platitudes - and intermittent truths - about the virtues of small-town life and well-made plays, the spectators then troop downstairs to the main auditorium. Here a couple of blindfolded men do a slapstick job of setting the stage for a performance of ''Our Town,'' while two women make unrehearsed ''live'' phone calls to people outside the theater. In the next section, the performers reenact a comedy routine originated and made popular by the black entertainer Pigmeat Markham. The show culminates in a surreal climax: The bittersweet last act of ''Our Town'' is performed as a soap opera on TV monitors, while the cast members have an increasingly chaotic party - counterpointing Wilder's homey vision with a sardonic evocation of the darker, dingier ''our towns'' that inhabit the back corners of American culture and thought.
The impact of ''Route 1 & 9'' comes largely from its spatial ingenuity, with TV sets dangling from the ceiling, music blaring from the rafters, performers cavorting inside a skeletal house, strange conversations wafting through the air. As a bonus for spectators familiar with earlier Wooster Group work, the climax includes a subtle but deeply moving look into their own past, as the performers don costumes from former productions and act out sad parodies of their own work. In one sense, ''Route 1 & 9'' is a direct continuation of the group's perennial concern with autobiographical theater - once focused on their leading actor, Spalding Gray, and now broadened to the company as a whole.But no prior experience is needed to appreciate the savage brilliance of the performers. Chief among them are Ron Vawter, in the utterly perfect ''educational film'' section, and Willem Dafoe, who almost tears the theater apart in the boisterous Markham re-creation. Other major contributions come from Kate Valk and Peyton. Jim Clayburgh codesigned the settings with Miss LeCompte. Though the show has temporarily closed, it will reopen later this season in a revival of three Wooster Group works, including ''Point Judith'' and the stunning ''Nayatt School.''The longtime star of the troupe, Spalding Gray, plays only a small role in ''Route 1 & 9,'' but is actively pursuing his own, self-invented brand of theater, which he calls ''monologues.'' In these radically (and deceptively) simple works, he talks directly to his audience without a script. His latest, ''47 Beds,'' is a freewheeling account of several months in his peripatetic life as a person, a performer, and a would-be bon vivant. Tracing his travels from SoHo to Greece to Rhode Island, dealing with everyone from his father and friends to brief acquaintances, it is one of his most colorful and picaresque works - a sit-down comedy routine, to be sure, but very much a theatrical experience, given Gray's sly and subtle way of weaving his audience and his setting as well as himself and his words into a seamless and resonant unity. Opening night was often hilarious, and touching, too - though it contained moments of frank sexual discussion, which some viewers may feel have no place in such a generally scrupulous show. Since this scriptless work is different each time it's performed, however, such warnings may not apply equally from one night to the next. In any case, ''47 Beds'' seems destined to become one of Gray's more popular works, and its anecdotal material far surpasses that of the previous Gray monologue, a disappointing travelogue called ''In Search of the Monkey Girl: Stories of the 1981 Tennessee State Fair.'' (Gray also gave a marvelous reading recently in the poets' series at the Public Theater in New York, further demonstrating his versatility.)Another work to invade the Performing Garage recently was an antic concoction called ''Ray Whitfield and the Johnsons in 'Hula' '' - a Wooster Group show, featuring absolutely nobody named Johnson or Whitfield. Rather, troupe members Vawter, Dafoe, and Valk danced their way through an old record album of Hawaiian pop music, giving each tune its own visual accompaniment, to hilarious effect. It's a lightweight show, lacking the company's usual conceptual complexity; and the costumes are scanty, which calls it into question as family fare. As a sort of campy avant-garde ballet, however, it succeeds remarkably well. There's nothing in, say, Paul Taylor's ''Three Epitaphs'' or the recent comic dance work of Erick Hawkins that's anywhere near as funny. Meanwhile, another ''record-album interpretation'' by ''Ray Whitfield and the Johnsons'' is slated to open this spring.