Wooster Group trilogy packs sizzling moments

Once again, controversy is swirling around the Wooster Group, perhaps the most brilliant and most ornery theater troupe on the current scene. The flap has a familiar ring, since it focuses on a work first performed six years ago.

Its title is ``Route 1 & 9 (The Last Act),'' and its alleged crime is to mimic a comedy routine originally done by black comedian Pigmeat Markham.

Some critics take offense at the blackface makeup worn by the Wooster actors, and at the verbal and visual crudeness of the routine itself.

At one point the group lost a major chunk of its state-supported funding on grounds that the show was racist in effect, if not intent.

A less feisty troupe might have dropped a theatrical hot potato like this as quickly as possible.

But the Wooster company thrives on audacity and experimentation. This season director Elizabeth LeCompte has given ``Route 1 & 9'' fresh life by making it Part 1 of ``The Road to Immortality,'' a newly designed trilogy now in progress here.

And the nay-sayers have revived their attack on the work, which also includes a mock-educational film on Thornton Wilder, a nightmarish party in a suburban house, and live phone calls to take-out food establishments.

I strongly disagree with the reviewers and bureaucrats who take ``Route 1 & 9'' to task.

I have watched the disputed blackface scene many times, in rehearsal and in full production, and it seems to me self-evident that the group is ridiculing and lamenting racial stereotypes, not exploiting or abusing them.

Such ludicrous racist images are their own worst enemy, in any case. Merely to exhibit them - especially in the context of a dense multimedia commentary on American attitudes and values - is to expose their self-destructive idiocy.

Looking beyond this to ``Route 1 & 9'' as a whole, it doesn't stand as one of the group's best works. Its energy flags at times, and some of its images are so murky that it's hard to make them out, much less make sense of them.

Yet director LeCompte is enormously gifted, and her troupe includes some of the most imaginative performers around, including longtime colleagues Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, and - fresh from the movie ``Platoon'' - Willem Dafoe.

There are moments when they make the stage sizzle, especially when their bleakly sardonic view of American domesticity collides head-on with a Thornton Wilder play that's performed soap-opera-style on TV sets dangling from the ceiling.

``Route 1 & 9'' recently opened ``The Road to Immortality'' at the Kitchen arts center. The trilogy enters its next phase today with ``...Just the High Points...'' at the Performing Garage, through Feb. 8. It will conclude with a new work based on Flaubert's ``Temptation of Saint Antony,'' codirected by LeCompte and Peter Sellars.

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