AGAINST the odds, a dauntless company called the Wooster Group has established itself as one of the boldest and most innovative theater troupes anywhere. Its latest offering, a complicated show with a strange title - ``Frank Dell's The Temptation of Saint Antony'' - finds the troupe still committed to radical and challenging theater.
Since it isn't fashionable to be radical or challenging nowadays, the Wooster company is often on the receiving end of apathetic or even hostile reviews, even from some of the aesthetically left-wing journals that normally support unconventional art.
If past experience is a guide, however, the troupe will continue to find an enthusiastic (if small) audience, and to ferret out the financial support that has kept it alive and well (to its own surprise, I think!) for almost 15 years now.
The troupe has staged ``Frank Dell/Saint Antony'' before, as a work in progress. The edition that opened recently at the Performing Garage is said to be definitive, although it may continue to change and evolve as time goes by. This is a show for adventurous spectators who don't mind an occasional sense of being assaulted rather than persuaded.
Directed by the hugely gifted Elizabeth LeCompte, it stars Wooster regulars Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, and Peyton Smith, with Willem Dafoe appearing in the video portions.
The show's title comes from two very different sources. Frank Dell was a pseudonym used occasionally by Lenny Bruce, the late humorist. ``The Temptation of Saint Antony'' refers to Flaubert's unconventional drama about a saint whose experiences were said to include visitations from mythical and historical personages. Using a technique Ms. LeCompte calls ``layering,'' the group has combined elements of Bruce's life with portions of Flaubert's text - tossing in references to Ingmar Bergman's film ``The Magician,'' and a sardonic critique of spiritualism and supernaturalism, for good measure.
THE result, like all Wooster Group works, has no conventional story. It begins with a monologue spoken by a man who's Frank Dell/Lenny Bruce and Saint Antony combined. Later he rehearses a dance company, puts on a magic show with various loony tricks, and faces what could be the end of his career.
Scattered moments of realistic behavior mingle with outbursts of surrealistic frenzy. The live performances are counterpointed by video images, many of them evidently patterned after the foolish late-night TV shows that appear in some large cities, with nude people sitting around and jabbering about nothing in particular.
Two things make this assemblage compelling. One is the inventiveness of the stagecraft, which sags at times but often explodes with manic energy. The other factor is the group's brilliance at drawing intuitive connections between elements of life and experience that might seem to have nothing in common - between a third-century saint and a 20th-century comedian, for example, both of whom suffer from feelings of deep-rooted loneliness and instability. Or between the fuzzy notions of old-fashioned occultism and the ubiquity of cheap TV images, which claim to enhance our lives but actually clutter and confuse them.
THE Wooster Group doesn't explore such connections in a methodical or analytical way. Rather, it transforms its ideas into kinetic images, forges these into complicated chains and collages, and pitches them at the audience like so many visual fastballs.
The result has a complexity and vitality that may be unique in today's theater. Yet those qualities, raised to the Wooster Group's high level of intensity, may seem more intimidating than stimulating if you're used to a conventional narrative flow.
For all its ingenuity, it must be said that ``Frank Dell/Saint Antony'' doesn't reach the astonishingly high level of achievement the Wooster Group has attained in the past. The company's best work, a trilogy called ``Three Places in Rhode Island,'' was anchored to the real, ordinary world in a profoundly poignant way that subsequent Wooster works have rarely rediscovered. Nor does ``Frank Dell/Saint Antony'' have the ferocious humor and bitterly sharp historical sense that distinguished ``L.S.D. [...Just the High Points...]'' not long ago.
But for the playgoer who doesn't mind seeing every rule of polite, conventional theater being torn to ribbons and tossed gleefully into the air, even a second-class Wooster Group production is a major event. ``Frank Dell/Saint Antony'' isn't for delicate sensibilities, but it packs a theatrical wallop that has few equals in recent memory.