Barring Critics, Inventive Theater Group Still Thrives

An interview with distinguished director Elizabeth LeCompte reveals free-spirited approach to 'The Hairy Ape,' other productions

Elizabeth LeCompte is one of the most dynamic innovators in American theater today.

From her home base at the Performing Garage in lower Manhattan, she has directed the imaginative Wooster Group since the 1970s, guiding a highly skilled ensemble - members have included Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray, among others - through a long series of explosively original productions.

Along the way she has picked up such honors as a distinguished artists fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, perhaps the most prestigious prize in contemporary American culture.

Despite these accomplishments, though, LeCompte has never become a household name. And this is largely her own doing. Her work is so fresh and uncompromising that many theatergoers and even reviewers - tuned into more commercial Broadway-type fare - find her densely textured productions too inventive and unpredictable for their tastes.

Weary of articles that didn't "get" her work, LeCompte took an unorthodox step several years ago - declaring her shows off-limits for critics, and relying on word of mouth rather than reviews to draw audiences. It's an offbeat strategy, but it hasn't hurt the group's growing reputation. A simple newspaper listing is enough to fill the Performing Garage these days, and audiences outside New York - especially in Europe, where the troupe often tours - are also quick to line up for tickets.

Heartened by this trend, the Wooster Group has now moved its latest work - a bold new version of Eugene O'Neill's classic drama "The Hairy Ape," with Dafoe in the title role - to a comparatively large uptown theater for a nine-week run. "I've been making my pieces to play in bigger spaces," LeCompte said in a recent interview, "so this is a natural step for us. Our audiences have been growing, and ... they'll find us uptown as easily as before."

It remains to be seen whether mainstream spectators will respond as readily to her pyrotechnics as to the musicals and special-effects extravaganzas in Broadway houses nearby. The same goes for critics, who can't be staved off as easily on 42nd Street as in the troupe's own SoHo neighborhood. Some are skeptical, but LeCompte is sure a wider audience is eager for the special experiences she offers.

She's probably right. Unusual as they are in artistic terms, nobody's shows provide more sheer excitement for adventurous playgoers. LeCompte loves to deconstruct the meanings and mechanisms of theater. Watching a multimedia piece like "The Hairy Ape," you see the beams holding up the stage, the microphones amplifying the dialogue, the wires connecting the video monitors - all the things kept carefully hidden in ordinary productions. Yet their visibility makes them somehow alluring, especially when technology crashes head-on into the classical theatrics of O'Neill-style melodrama.

Confusing? Sometimes. But more stimulating than almost anything else around.

"The Hairy Ape," written in 1921, centers on a boiler-room laborer who becomes obsessed with a wealthy passenger he's glimpsed during an ocean voyage, only to be consumed with rage when she insults him and struts back to a privileged life he'll never know. Determined to find her in New York, he clashes with police and union organizers before meeting a tragic end in the city zoo.

What attracted LeCompte to this decades-old drama? One reason may be a longtime affinity for O'Neill, whose larger-than-life imagination has a fanciful extravagance not unlike her own. In any case, her motivations are more instinctive than intellectual. "I really can't say what attracts me to a text," she says. "It might just be a line [of dialogue] or an image, and I just see where that takes me."

This intuitive method is typical of LeCompte, who sees her work as a form of "playing" in which her mind and heart remain free of preconceived notions. From the beginning of her career, when she and Gray collaborated on the brilliant "Three Places in Rhode Island," she has been less a conventional director than a guide or overseer for the improvisations of her performers. Starting with some phrase, gesture, object, or text that tantalizes them, they take off in whatever directions their imaginations suggest. LeCompte observes, selects, reshuffles, and assembles their actions into what becomes a finished show.

They often present a work long before it's completed, gaining useful input from audience responses. The latest example is "House/Lights: TV Dances," recently given at the Performing Garage for a single weekend - and already exciting, although far from its final form. Only rarely does a production stick to a single text, as "The Hairy Ape" does. More frequently the text gets blended in with other ingredients, as when O'Neill's epic "Long Day's Journey Into Night" became 20 minutes in an intricate assemblage called "Point Judith" years ago.

"We have a genius for survival," LeCompte says of her company, with a smile at once pleased and rueful. Sustaining her unique style has not been easy, especially as grant money and corporate support have diminished during the '90s, putting pressure on artists who don't see the box office as their highest priority.

Yet recognition of their feats is on the upswing, and Dafoe's success as a popular actor - his "Hairy Ape" comes between "The English Patient" and the hyped "Speed 2," due this summer - has raised the troupe's profile.

This doesn't mean the group is a star vehicle for its most famous member, of course. It includes many remarkable performers, and Dafoe's work there is as daring and experimental as that of LeCompte or anyone else. Seeing a stunningly avant-garde side of his talent is just one of many surprises "The Hairy Ape" has in store for adventurous theatergoers.

* 'The Hairy Ape' continues at the Selwyn Theater through May 25. 'Wrong Guys,' a Wooster Group video directed by LeCompte and starring Dafoe, is included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial Exhibition, on view through June 1.

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