If you can't beat him, join him.
This seems to be the strategy the Wooster Group has adopted in tackling Shakespeare again. In 2008 the trailblazing New York troupe brought its production of "Hamlet" to REDCAT and had many people admiring the ghostly video footage of Richard Burton's melancholy Dane and wondering why they weren't getting the benefit of such a commanding lead performance.
Now the company is back at REDCAT with "Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida)," a work that began as a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has subsequently evolved into an unthinkable Wooster Group proposition: a production in which the play is decidedly the thing.
Before any Shakespeare traditionalists start ordering their tickets, let me be clear that this is by no means a stock revival of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," a play that defies genre and asks its audience to laugh, weep and show contempt — occasionally at the same time. Liberties are taken with this tragicomic tale of lovers whose faithless romance is suitably set against the backdrop of the morally corrupt Trojan War.
The Trojans are represented here as members of a fictional (and somewhat stereotypical) Native American tribe, the Greeks as British chaps with a Crocodile Dundee-sounding Aussie in their midst. The playful Wooster Group acting style — with the performers' flat affect wringing ironic chuckles from the discrepancy between sound and sense — remains unfazed by the play's difficult and brilliant language.
But what's surprising is how closely the production hews to the dramatic outline of Shakespeare's play. It's the story that holds our attention, not the collision between high and low culture that is Wooster Group's usual mode of operation.
The company has made its name by reflecting canonical texts in a multimedia fun house mirror. Normally the stage is awash in bleeping technology, but perhaps in recognition of the fact that our lives are now inundated with screens, director Elizabeth LeCompte has chosen to keep the video relatively low key.
The design scheme is notable chiefly for the sculptural costumes by Folkert de Jong and Delphine Courtillot. The Native American characters get the better end of the bargain with funky war outfits. The Greeks, who were originally played by RSC actors, have to make do with cowboy masks.
With the focus now on the Trojan experience, Agamemnon (played by the production's Troilus, Scott Shepherd) and his forces seem rather indistinct. Their victory may be inevitable, but theatrically they're the losers in a production that treats them as something of an afterthought.
Could this be the reason "Cry, Trojans!" seem so aesthetically attenuated — so Wooster Group lite?
Initially, the production was meant to be a confrontation not just of two societies, indigenous and imperialist (a problematic analogy for Shakespeare's play), but of two theater cultures, British traditional and avant-garde American. But with the RSC out of the picture, the Wooster Group was left without an antagonist. Not wanting to take Shakespeare on, the company finds itself in the position of a squash player banging away in a court with no walls.
The result is an uncharacteristically tame production, one that left me time to ponder the awkward politics of an overwhelmingly white ensemble horsing around with cultural caricatures of race.
Modestly diverting as it is to see company stalwarts Kate Valk and Shepherd (who was so memorable as the narrator in Elevator Repair Service's "Gatz") assume the roles of Shakespeare's unlucky sweethearts, "Cry, Trojans!" satisfied neither my appetite for the Wooster Group nor Shakespeare.
The sendup of characters — Greg Mehrten's trashy Southern Pandarus, Suzzy Roche's curiously levelheaded Cassandra, Ari Fliakos' Hector channeling a reticent Mark Wahlberg action hero — made me wish LeCompte would have been even more daring in her approach to the text.
There are flickers of insouciant brilliance — the appearance of Helen as a dancing queen, embodied by Valk but voiced by male performers — but few flames. The second act is particularly ramshackle, as flimsy as the bedraggled tepee mindlessly marking Trojan turf.
'Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida)'
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 9.
Contact: (213) 237-2800 or http://www.redcat.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes