Ari Fliakos in The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré Photo: The Wooster GroupThe Wooster Group
returned to Los Angeles this week at the REDCAT performance space downtown as part of their ongoing multi-year residency there. After a number of successful performances under their belt
at REDCAT already, Elizabeth LeCompte and her troupe of players presented a U.S Premiere of their most recent production, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré
. The Wooster Group has a special way with most materials whether their lineage is great or common. They are expert at making big points by fusing or juxtaposing texts from both categories in the same space at the same time like 2008’s performances of Cavalli’s La Didone
. And much about the look of the group’s take on Vieux Carré
is certainly familiar from its stripped down staging atop and beside two large rolling platforms to the use of multiple video screens and a variety of visual and audio collage techniques. In fact this may be the piece’s largest weakness in that even by Wooster Group standards, Vieux Carré
looks overly familiar and downright conventional.
Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk in The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré Photo: Nancy Campbell/The Wooster Group
The story is one that took a long time for Williams to tell. Vieux Carré
is one of the playwright’s “memory plays.” It follows a loosely autobiographical story of a young writer’s artistic and homosexual awakening during his youthful days living in a decrepit Depression-era New Orleans boarding house filled with a cast of eccentric characters who by turns are alternately both predatory and supportive. The writer, played by Ari Fliakos, is not unlike Williams' other autobiographical young writer, Tom Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie,
looking for himself in the most desperate of circumstances. But while Williams only hints at Tom’s sexuality in that play, Vieux Carré
pulls no punches with an explicit narrative where the unnamed writer finds himself in any number of sexual interactions with the other men who drift through his world including Nightingale, his TB-infected next door neighbor. The frankness of the depiction of sexuality here may be even more surprising considering that while Vieux Carré
received its unsuccessful New York premiere in 1977, Williams had worked on it as early as 1939 with the final product never seeing the light of day until the world had substantially changed around it.
LeCompte and her troupe deal with the sexual content of the play directly with Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, who plays both Nightingale and the beautiful, threatening, sexually ambiguous Tye McCool. The two men spend most of the first hour on stage in little more than jockstraps, Shepherd’s characters walking about with a large dido protruding from the few remaining elements of their costumes. It is a funny gesture that simultaneously clarifies the homosexual desire that permeates every moment of the show and mocks the melodramatic way in which Williams sometimes handles the subject. Some of the sexual fantasies of the writer that are only alluded to in the script, are acted out in much greater detail on the many video screens where live video feeds are altered and processed in such a way as to replicate pornography in a video collage of different video channels. Above the action on the disheveled prop-strewn stage two smaller monitors appeared to be playing excerpts from the early cinematic oeuvre of Joe Dallesandro. The material is delivered in the troupe's preferred arch style with a variety of sound effects added to the amplified voices.
But while the show looks great, and the performances of the three principal players Fliakos, Shepherd, and Kate Valk are remarkable in the multiple roles they all handle, I felt like something was missing. When you get write down to it, The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré
is pretty much the play Williams wrote, nothing more, nothing less. And that leaves the production vulnerable to some of the script's excesses including a second hour that drags and a feeling that you've seen this before. It was almost as if there was a missing layer—another text or different perspective—that should have been intruding on the proceedings but strangely wasn't. Certainly, the use of video and sound processing helped heighten the sense of dislocation in a play that may exist only in the memory of its characters. But Vieux Carré
for all of its strengths seems like only half a concept. It's is undoubtedly from the minds of The Wooster Group, but I would argue its not among their best work either. The show runs through December 12 at the REDCAT.
Labels: LA Theater Reviews, REDCAT 10/11