Wearing dark glasses, sandals and a bathrobe, the central
character of "Frank Dell's the Temptation of St.
Anthony" stands under a spotlight muttering into a
microphone. Calling out instructions to an unseen engineer, he
obsessively plays and replays scenes from a cable-TV nude talk
show visible on a row of monitors above his head, dubbing in
all the voices himself like a video ventriloquist. The
dialogue these embarrassed-looking nudists spout ranges from
banal chitchat to metaphysical ruminations.
What is going on here?
To help decode this
mystifying tableau, the program has provided a few clues.
"Frank Dell," it
turns out, was a name sometimes used by the late stand-up
comic Lenny Bruce. "The Temptation of St. Antony" is
Gustave Flaubert's 1874
dramatic poem about the 3rd-Century saint who spent most of
his life fasting in the desert.
Logic has it that the actor
on stage is some combination of the two and the weird pictures
on the TV set must be the profane comic's drug-induced
hallucinations mixed with the hermetic saint's hunger-induced
So far, so good. But the
stage is full of other bizarre elements. What's that crazy
cocktail piano music all about? Who are those three women
doing corny magic routines, quoting Stevie Nicks and
performing their "Queen of Sheba" dance? And what
about the video of a bunch of exotically dressed people in a
hotel room standing around a corpse and poking it with a
Ladies and gentlemen, it's
the Wooster Group.
After winning acclaim during
the 1987 Los Angeles Festival with "The Road to
Immortality: Part Two (. . . Just the High Points . .
.)," the New York-based experimental-theater troupe
returns to Los Angeles this week for six performances of
"Frank Dell's the Temptation of St. Anthony," the
conclusion of its "Road to Immortality" trilogy.
Presented by the Los Angeles Festival in partnership with the
Museum of Contemporary Art at the Temporary Contemporary, the
five performances at MOCA beginning Friday are already sold
The Wooster Group is
something of a curiosity, revered by a fanatical cult
following yet largely unknown to mainstream audiences-perhaps
contemporary theater's counterpart to the Grateful Dead.
Part of the group's mystique
derives from its sheer longevity as one of the few theater
companies in America that have stuck together for more than a
The evolutionary outgrowth of
Richard Schechner's Performance Group, one of the foremost
Off-Broadway theaters of the 1960s, the Wooster Group is a
mixed-media ensemble of five principle actors, designer Jim
Clayburgh, and numerous associates, all under the direction of
Elizabeth LeCompte. Together, they have created seven major
theater pieces since 1975 in a career fueled by controversy
Hometown critics have been
decidedly cool to the group's visually oriented, aggressively
non-narrative work, yet it has been hailed at festivals across
Europe as the pride of the American theater.
Charges of racism arising
from the group's use of blackface in "Route 1 &
9" (Part 1 of "The Road to Immortality") led to
a reduction of its funding from the New York State Council for
the Arts in 1982, yet the Wooster Group was one of the first
recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts' Ongoing
Ensembles grants aimed at supporting long-term theatrical
The company creates and
premieres its work at a tiny converted garage in New York's
SoHo district, yet three of its members have become renowned
in motion pictures: Spalding Gray ("Swimming to
Cambodia"), Willem Dafoe ("Platoon," "The
Last Temptation of Christ," "Wild at Heart"),
and Ron Vawter ("sex, lies, and videotape").
Those who saw the Wooster
Group in 1987 will be familiar with the company's fast-paced,
exhilarating, abrasive theatrical collage.
". . . Just the High
Points . . ." juxtaposed the teachings of Timothy
Leary-fractured through the reminiscences of his suburban
Boston baby-sitter Ann Rower-with a fast-forwarded adaptation
of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."
For all its playfulness and
disjointed narrative, ". . . Just the High Points . .
." seriously examined American culture's spiritual
malaise, the erosion of moral certainty in the search for
higher consciousness. In its multilayered structure "St.
Anthony" perpetuates the same theatrical style.
"For me, there are many
connections between the two pieces," LeCompte says.
"I'm writing with the same vocabulary. In some ways I've
shifted-it's like I'm not using a ballpoint this time but a
scroll pen-but all the same essential ideas are there."
In some ways, nothing quite
prepares viewers for the spectacle of "St. Anthony."
Unlike the established American classics that other Wooster
group pieces were based on, ("Long Day's Journey Into
Night," "Our Town," "The Crucible"),
Flaubert's densely poetic, virtually unstageable drama about
the 3rd-Century saint will be obscure to the vast majority of
As if Flaubert's mad fantasia
of the hermit saint were not enough, LeCompte and her actors
have jumbled up the text with two other sources. The storyline
comes from Ingmar Bergman's film, "The Magician," in
which a troupe of second-rate magicians escape from house
arrest when they're asked to perform for the King of Sweden.
The real guiding spirit of
the piece is Lenny Bruce, whose stand-up routines and passages
from Albert Goldman's biography make their way into the piece.
If controversy attends the
Wooster Group in Los Angeles, it may center on the question of
what this all-white group from New York is doing in the midst
of a festival celebrating Pacific cultures.
The connection would probably
be clearer if, as originally intended, the group were
supplementing performances of "St. Anthony" with
previews of its work-in-progress, "Brace Up," an
adaptation of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" that
incorporates Japanese theater techniques and Pacific Island
dances from Wallis and Futuna. The original plan was for the
festival and the museum to present the complete "Road to
Immortality" trilogy, as well as "Brace Up."
Practical considerations -- lack of money -- intervened.
From the beginning, the
Wooster Group had the only connection really necessary to be
part of the 1990 Los Angeles Festival: director Peter Sellars,
who did some fast, last-minute fund-raising when budget cuts
threatened to remove the Wooster Group from the festival
A longtime champion of their
work, Sellars has presented the company during his
directorships of the Boston Shakespeare Company and the
American National Theater in Washington; it was, in fact,
Sellars who proposed that the group undertake to stage Gustave
Flaubert's "The Temptation of St. Antony."
says, "I think this piece will be more understandable to
people in Los Angeles than in New York." In California,
she explains, spiritual fulfillment and movie stardom are
pursued with equal ardency.
"The other side of
Flaubert's Europe is Hollywood, and I always felt this piece
formed an arc between the two poles.
"Of all the pieces we've
done, this is the most polarized in its cultural references.
I've set two systems against one another: Hollywood
image-making, television, pop culture, where what you see is
what you get; and high culture of Europe, the examination of
the spiritual idea.
"You have Hilarion the
devil played on video by Willem Dafoe floating around working
as an actor, and Flaubert's St. Anthony, a spiritual man
questing in a cave someplace in Egypt. Somewhere, for me, the
circle is completed."
As an ensemble, the Wooster
Group has the luxury of spending months at a time developing
their work, but even by such leisurely standards, "St.
Anthony" had a longer gestation period: eight months of
rehearsal spread over three years.
It came out of asking the
hardest questions, LeCompte says: "Questions so hard, I
can't find the words for them. They have to do with the spirit
and the flesh, death and lust, what you believe in and how you
believe. In `St. Antony,' Flaubert is obsessed with death, so
I got obsessed with death in a sensual way, loving it,
embracing it. Looking back now, we can't believe we did
The Los Angeles Times, Aug
see review here