World premi`ere or work-in-progress? Take your pick. The experimental Wooster Group has unveiled the third and final part of its performance trilogy ``The Road to Immortality.'' What this controversial New York-based theater group began six years ago with ``Route 1 & 9'' and ``...Just the High Points'' is now complete with ``Frank Dell's Saint Antony.''
Or as complete as things ever get with the Wooster Group, whose high-decibel, collage approach to theater remains its stock in trade, within an avant-garde aesthetic increasingly defined by the exquisite, precise tableaux of Robert Wilson (``the CIVIL warS'') and Martha Clarke (``Garden of Earthly Delights'').
For those familar with the group's iconoclastic modus operandi (the troupe is an outgrowth of Richard Schechner's Performance Group, one of the leading experimental theaters of the 1960s,) ``Saint Antony'' is Wooster Group business as usual - a mixed-media, up-to-the-minute exploration of relationships between performer and spectator, content and form.
Based on Flaubert's 19th-century epic prose poem ``The Temptation of Saint Antony,'' this final installment of the three-part opus is a psychic and spiritual journey through American political culture.
It continues the group's methodology of juxtaposing literary texts with snatches of material from United States history and pop culture. ``Route 1 & 9'' melded snatches of Thorton Wilder's ``Our Town'' with Pigmeat Markham routines; ``...Just the High Points'' mixed and matched scenes from Arthur Miller's ``The Crucible'' (replaced by an original work, ``The Hearing'' after a legal challenge) with the writings of Timothy Leary, the psychedelic guru of the '60s.
Now in ``Saint Antony'' Flaubert rubs shoulders with Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and the late comedian Lenny Bruce, who occasionally used the pseudonym Frank Dell.
The various texts (Flaubert's poem, Bruce's transcripts, and Geraldine Cummins's ``The Road to Immortality,'' a book with which Bruce was fascinated just prior to his death) are woven into a not entirely seamless performance collage. Film clips mix with live performance; live performance replicates run-on conversation; dialogue is amplified by microphone, augmented by dance, interrupted by startling visual images.
Although stylistically reminiscent of the two earlier works (meditations on social and moral uncertainty), ``Saint Antony'' represents some significant departures.
It is billed as the Wooster Group's first collaboration with director Peter Sellars, former director of the American National Theatre in Washington.
``Saint Antony'' is also the group's most autobiographical work and its first foray into a European rather than American text.
An exploration of decadence and transcendence, ``Saint Antony'' goes beyond social commentary to something that is both more personal and metaphysical - a window on the Wooster Group itself, and an abstract study of the breakdown and rebirth of the human spirit.
Although the story derives from Flaubert's lyrical, surrealistic epic, which depicts the desert visions of a 5th-century Egyptian saint, the action has been reset in a seedy hotel room in Washington, D.C., where a third-rate troupe of magicians rehearse a show, while their leader, Frank Dell (played by Ron Vawter), experiences a breakdown and attempts suicide.
While much of the structure is borrowed from Bergman's film ``The Magician,'' the constant juxtaposition of the often unfamiliar texts precludes facile narrative sense. Questions persist. Is the beleagured troupe Frank Dell's, or Bruce's entourage, or is it the controversial Wooster Group itself? (Criticized as being racist in ``Route 1 & 9,'' the group suffered a crucial loss of funding in 1981. They were later threatened with a lawsuit for unauthorized use of Miller's text in ``...Just the High Points.'')
The multimedia performance structure abets this allusive confusion. Frank Dell's increasingly despairing musings on stage are underscored by film footage (by Ken Kobland) of a pornographic cable TV talk show, which also functions as the video corollary of St. Antony's decaying erotic visions.
This blend of the scatalogical and metaphysical and live performance and filmed sequence characterizes the rest of the piece that in just 80 minutes manages to encompass lust and despair, horror and hope.
There is even humor. At one point, Dell asks about the time and is answered by a voice from the video monitor.
This kind of radical deconstructionism successfully paralleled the disorientation of the hallucinatory mind in ``...Just the High Points.'' It is even more effective here in its associative probing of spiritual and physical despair that is beyond sense. Indeed, the production's most affecting moments are two imagistic expressions of that desolation characterized by ``prayers, tears, and physical suffering.''
In one scene, actress Peyton Smith cradles the bleeding head of Mr. Vawter; in the other, Ms. Smith weeps into a microphone over ``the fallen soldiers of Dunkirk,'' while Vawter, flails electrically lit lilies at an imagined audience.
Unfortunately, no such highly charged moments punctuate the brief final scene, entitled ``Post Mortem.''
``Don't feel you always have to fly,'' says the oddly rejuvenated Dell. ``You can walk.''
It is a decidely humanist resolution that does not, in its current truncated form (the scene lasts barely five minutes), counterbalance the despair. Wooster Group artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte, however, promises an additional conclusion, one encompassing Christian redemption.
Funded in part by the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, ``Saint Antony'' premi`ered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It will be performed in repertory with ``...Just The High Points'' at Smith College this month and again later this year in New York at the Wooster Group's Performing Garage.