This article was written on 07 May 2013, and is filled under Performance.

Wooster Group/O’Neill


The Wooster Group-thumb-594xauto-43374

“The Early Plays,” Eugene O’Neill
The Wooster Group
Directed by Richard Maxwell
REDCAT THEATRE, Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.
Pictured: Alex Delinois, Kevin Hurley. Courtesy of The Wooster Group.

What happens when interrogating clichés becomes a cliché? Is it possible to interrogate an interrogation of theatrical clichés without becoming either overly self-consciously arch or dull? These and other questions inevitably arise in anticipation of the alchemical union of the Wooster Group and director Richard Maxwell, in their collaborative production of three of Eugene O’Neill’s “Glencairn Plays” that has just finished a short run at the Redcat in LA’s Disney Concert Hall. Though both the Wooster Group and Maxwell base their considerable reputation on the interrogation of theatrical clichés, they approach this interrogation in radically divergent ways. This may indeed have been Elizabeth LeCompte’s idea in inviting Maxwell to direct these three short pieces which, despite Jason Zindman’s description of them in the Times as “moody one-acts,” are not really plays but tone-poems, chamber pieces, or exercises in what might be called the observed songiness of juxtaposed dialects. Though it has often been said that the pieces seem to be examples of O’Neill’s “finding his voice,” it’s more accurate to say that he is attempting to orchestrate other voices he has conjured up from his early experiences at sea. O’Neill’s effort, as Maxwell claims, is to make the language “musical,” a multi-part (dis)harmony exploring speech rhythms and cadences and the relationship between those external manifestations of speech and the “internal” nature of the personages delivering them. In the Glencairn pieces (named after the ship on which O’Neill spent time in the Caribbean as a young man) O’Neill is interested in drawing our attention to language as a mimetic device for the creation and shading of character. Their challenge, theatrically, is that their focus on that kind of mimesis means that they are a particular kind of music-theatre: more Debussy than Ravel; more a wash of colors than sharp or intense atonality.

All the more counter-intuitive, then, that these pieces should find their way into the orbit of the Wooster Group, with its trademark dissection of both text and the nature of text, often embellishing texts with other texts and with complex technological effects, let alone of Richard Maxwell, whose characteristic strategy is an affectless, minimalist presentation style (“style is my adversary!”) stripping away and eradicating all “unnecessary emotions or expressions that actors introduce.”  The rationale is apparently to allow us to hear with different ears, to experience the tonality of O’Neill’s lines without the intercession of conventional drama, and to interrogate the theatrical relationship between bodies and texts in new ways. It’s a worthy challenge, and one for which both LeCompte and Maxwell are justifiably well-known.


Production still from Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

It’s disappointing to report, then, that the experiment—despite some affecting moments—doesn’t work. The neutrality Maxwell asks of his performers reads rather as awkward flatness, as though they were engaging in a workshop on Brechtian presentation techniques or were speaking in a language learned by rote. But Brechtian presentation engages (in fact focuses on) the audience’s confrontation with ideas and choices: the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Sean O’Casey’s Purple Dust, for example, was done as a posthumous meeting of Brecht and O’Casey, laminating the lyrical text with sharp, typically Brechtian interventions and incisions. But the clarity and precision of the collision made the presentation seem both luminous and confrontational (I saw it at the Schiffbauerdammplatz Theatre in 1968 and still remember it vividly). Despite the fact that lighting is an important element of the performance, luminosity doesn’t occur in Maxwell’s production, at least in terms of the text. The effect of O’Neill’s dialects (Irish, Scandinavian, Russian, etc.), cobbled together mechanically and predictably to mirror the various seamen he encountered in his early travels, are wooden at best and laughable at worst. And they are often at their worst. There’s a cliché in American theatre that the flat American accent pervades all others that actors attempt, emptying them of music and making them sound rather horribly amateur. Such was the case with all of the Wooster players, particularly when their lines are not constructed as a play and when they consist of a maddeningly repetitious refrain of far-too-well-worn clichés (what is one to do with ‘Sherr an oim doyin fer a drink!’ but look to the ceiling?). In fact, the entire aural project hovers at the edge of the inadvertently comical; even the relatively sophisticated Redcat audience didn’t know quite which way to turn: comments after the show included such things as ‘did they mean to be funny’?. This is not the kind of incongruity one would hope for in any Wooster Group presentation, but perhaps it isn’t so surprising in the context of the strange alchemy between the Group and Maxwell. In light of Maxwell’s signature non-affective style, we seemed to be confronting a via negativa: no­n-acting and directing that, as estrangement, resulted in seeming exotic in its strange consistency and consistent strangeness.


Production still from “Early Plays.” Pictured: Brian Mendes, Ari Fliakos. Courtesy of The Wooster Group.

The most interesting and satisfying aspect of the performance was visual. The O’Neill vignettes were strung together on a slightly-raised platform stranded in the playing area as the base of a box the other sides of which were merely suggested by narrow steel poles that both framed the action and made it into a kind of quotation. I was reminded of Brecht’s presentational style, Christian Boltanski’s trailing electric wires, and Francis Bacon’s architecturo-geometrical grids, though without the intellectual engagement of the first, the enigmatic starkness of the second, nor the dynamic, monstrous tensions of the third. Still, the (again sub-Brechtian) use of the space was the most conventionally successful part of the performance. Yet the scene that stays with me­—as a result of its visual power—took place outside the box, in a far corner of the room. A dying sailor is talking to his friend, at night, in his hammock.

The theatre was entirely dark except for a single on-stage lantern. This moment of ‘realism’ (though highly theatrical) produced a complex effect: it was arresting in its dramatic simplicity, but as time and talk passed it became impossible to focus on the small pool of light, which began to blur and fade. One had to look away to ‘see’ the action. This struck me as the moment truest to O’Neill’s effort at an audio-visual memory-dreamscape that slipped in and out of one’s grasp. I would have loved to have seen as much simple invention elsewhere in the evening.

Stephen Barker





One Comment

  1. Ian
    June 3, 2013

    Very interesting essay, Stephen–I wish I had seen the production, despite your criticisms.