The stage is filled by a long table reminiscent of congressional hearings, and the characters at that table have names like Timothy Leary, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. At the far end of the table, sporadically reciting information that comes her way via a headset, is an actress playing Ann Rower, a baby sitter for Leary during the LSD guru's Cambridge days.
It's the '50s and '60s according to the Wooster Group, a New York-based ensemble that lands in Los Angeles next Sunday. Wooster makes its West Coast debut at the Los Angeles Festival with "The Road to Immortality: Part Two (. . . Just the High Points . . . )" a controversial multimedia play heralded by at least one major critic as "powerful visionary theater."
The Wooster Group, which gets its name from the SoHo street housing its theater, has been trekking the globe with "High Points" on and off since 1984. The play was presented in Montreal recently at the Theatre Festival of the Americas and played Europe last fall and Smith College this summer. A work-in-progress for much of its history, the show has evolved through a series of adventures as convoluted as the onstage happenings.
It was artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte's interest in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" that initiated the group's writing of "High Points," LeCompte explained in an interview between shows at Montreal's Centaur Theatre. Reviewing Wooster's "Route 1&9 (The Last Act)" in 1981, a New York Times critic suggested that Wooster scrap its "avant-garde detritus" and start presenting plays. LeCompte says she took the suggestion to heart, read a lot of plays, and chose to present "The Crucible."
But Wooster's "Crucible" was hardly conventional. For one thing, LeCompte envisioned it as about 45 minutes of "high points" from the play. For another, besides asking for permission to produce Miller's classic portrayal of the Salem witch hunts, she and colleagues began adding such contemporary trappings as readings from Ginsberg, music from Maynard Ferguson and excerpts from the G. Gordon Liddy / Timothy Leary "debates."
Permission never was granted. Miller objected, referring to "blatant parody" in one press account, worrying aloud in another that actors "verbally maul" his play. Miller's lawyers threatened legal action, and the piece was altered considerably (and retitled) in the mid-'80s amid heavy publicity.
"High Points" is classic Wooster fare. Earlier Wooster plays have taken chunks of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and T. S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" and tossed them into multimedia stews. "High Points" built on such precedent.
"I don't really know these plays until we start exploring them for our own purpose," LeCompte said in a published interview several years ago. "I'm discovering them for the first time, right before your eyes."
Exploring those plays with her have long been such Wooster Group colleagues as Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe (with whom she lives). Wooster Group members own and operate the Performing Garage, their New York home base, as well as collaborate in the writing of theater pieces.
"High Points" was typical. "I would set up a structure," explains the show's director LeCompte, "but because we know each other so well and we've been working together for so long, the performers in the company pick up right away and I can pick up from them right away and (we can) take an idea to its natural conclusion or its unnatural conclusion."
LeCompte, who has been called "the Mama of Dada theater," appears to pack as much into one hour offstage as her company does into two hours on stage. Seated in a corner of the Centaur's small, cluttered dressing room, she simultaneously talks with a reporter, answers questions from her actors and ministers to the needs of 5-year-old son Jack Dafoe.
Idly twisting wisps of hair around her finger as she talks, she speaks in almost a monotone as she obligingly and methodically describes "High Points." The fact that one segment of the show re-enacts a rehearsal done after the actors took acid is delivered with the same intonation as her initial concern that Wooster didn't have a large enough company to perform "The Crucible."
Many theater critics have referred to LeCompte's work as theatrical collage--she studied fine art at Skidmore College--and that was certainly the case on "High Points." A separate Wooster project involving short film studies of a record by Timothy Leary was in rehearsal during the same time as a production of "The Crucible." LeCompte had meanwhile opened rehearsals to audiences, and when the show fell short of a night's worth, she combined the two projects.
Other elements of the production came together over time. "High Points" begins with random readings from books by Ginsberg, Kerouac and others, and LeCompte traces inspiration for that sequence back to an early draft of colleague Spalding Gray's piece "Swimming to Cambodia." Film maker Ken Kobland and actor Ron Vawter had been in Miami on a separate film project for Wooster, and LeCompte liked the resulting film so much she threw it into the brew.
One night someone brought Leary's former baby sitter Ann Rower to the show, Rower sent on a letter, and LeCompte responded with an interview that now is an integral part of "High Points." And a rock music segment came about after musician Michael Stumm "was kind of bored so to keep him entertained I agreed that they could take some of the rehearsal time to work on a band, which they did."
The dispute with playwright Miller was apparently quite surprising to LeCompte. "I would go in sequence and never invert or rearrange lines," she says. "It was really like it was blocking out certain pages. . . . I imagined that the audience held its fingers in its ears and opened (them) up at certain places."
The Samuel French agency turned down Wooster's first requests to produce "The Crucible," and, "never one to be daunted at something," LeCompte kept trying. She wrote to Miller and to Miller's agent, asking them to come see the show. When Miller's lawyers later objected to what they saw, Wooster closed down the show.
But tours lined up for the piece the next year "were really crucial to our survival," explains LeCompte. " So I had to go back and really take a long hard look and that's when we did the major cutting back." To replace "The Crucible," a play was commissioned from Wooster member Michael Kirby; Kirby's "The Hearing" is set in the '50s and has cadences and themes similar to those of Miller's play.
Wooster's dispute with Miller also came at about the same time that American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge was having a disagreement with Samuel Beckett about director JoAnne Akalaitis' vision of Beckett's play, "Endgame." In the latter situation, the play went on as Akalaitis envisioned it, but its playbill included a statement from Beckett that read, in part, that productions of the play that ignored Beckett's very explicit stage directions were "completely unacceptable to me."
The dilemma of just where creative license stops--particularly in the case of living authors, who can protest interpretation much more effectively than can, say, Shakespeare--was covered in great depth in the New York and national press at the time. And a visitor to Wooster's SoHo-based Performing Garage walks away with a stack of clippings on the dispute that probably measures half an inch in thickness.
Not that Wooster is unaccustomed to controversy. "Route 1&9" incorporated vaudeville sketches from comedian Pigmeat Markham, featured white actors in blackface, and drew charges of racism. Responding to what one staff member referred to as "the artistic quality" of "Route 1&9," the New York State Council on the Arts cut Wooster funding back substantially.
Wooster's funding from the state council was soon back to prior levels, however, and just a few years later Wooster was among the first U.S. groups to receive funds from the National Endowment for the Arts's new grant program for ongoing ensembles. "The Wooster group creates important new and demanding work that needs to be seen," says Robert Marx, director of the NEA's theater program. "(It is) one of the most accomplished experimental companies we have in this country."
The company has also established a sizable repertoire. "It is very rare for any ensemble to take as much time working on a piece and bringing it along on as many stages of development," comments Edward Martenson, Marx' predecessor at the NEA and now executive director of Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre. "Because the participants have been more or less the same for a long time, they have access to a body of work stretching back for a long, long time, and that's pretty remarkable."
Wooster grew out of Richard Schechner's Performance Group, a prominent experimental troupe in the '60s, and "High Points" is the center section of Wooster's second trilogy. (The first trilogy drew heavily on the life of Spalding Gray who, like Wooster colleague Dafoe, now also has a successful acting career outside the group.) Theater critic Don Shewey has written that Wooster "created an original, innovative body of work to rival legendary European troupes like Kantor's Cricot 2 or Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil."
Currently incubating at the Wooster company is the last part of the "Road to Immortality" trilogy, "Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Anthony," which was initiated in 1984-85 as a collaboration with Peter Sellars, former director of Washington's American National Theater. This time the ensemble uses as source material such things as Flaubert's "The Temptation of Saint Antony," recordings and films of Lenny Bruce, the screenplay from Ingmar Bergman's film "The Magician," a videotape of company actors chatting in the nude, and a book by Geraldine Cummins on immortality.
Already performed in Massachusetts earlier this summer--where one critic likened it to "a skinny dip in the Styx"--it is being reworked for presentation in New York later this year. "High Points," meanwhile is settling into some sort of permanent shape, and LeCompte says the show that played Montreal is "basically the piece we'll bring (to Los Angeles)." It finally stopped changing last fall "after many years of fiddling," she says: "I haven't added or subtracted any significant text or rearranged anything in the past 10 performances."