Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk. Photo by Stephen Gunther.
BOTTOM LINE: Vieux Carré, a groundbreaking revival of a little-known Tennessee Williams memory play, is a fantastic example of what The Wooster Group does best: launching you into an alternate and totally engrossing reality while challenging and engaging your mind, senses, and emotions.
The Wooster Group's version of Vieux Carré makes a compelling argument for the power and immediacy of avant-garde theater in the digital age, and the need for mainstream theater to move beyond stick-in-the-mud realism if it wants to maintain audience interest in an era when people can consume excellent acting, writing and production values all from the comfort of their La-Z-Boy. Led by iconoclastic director Elizabeth LeCompte, The Wooster Group specializes in technology-intensive theater that manages to highlight raw and physically demanding live human performances, breaking down barriers between old and new forms in a way that is radical and feels totally necessary.
Blending the intensity of a rock concert with complex text and characters, along with virtuosic performances by some of the best stage performers anywhere, this production of Vieux Carré upends the familiar Tennessee Williams tropes, transforming them into an ultra-surreal reality. Through its strangeness, one begins to feel the heat, the danger, the need and the longing that suffuse this autobiographical play. The final take away is a deep, cellular-level understanding of what Williams might have experienced in both his inner and outer worlds while he was living in a boarding house in the French Quarter of New Orleans as a young gay man at the tail end of the Great Depression. One feels simultaneously liberated and oppressed by the place and its inhabitants, feelings heightened by the unrelentless pace and sensory onslaught of the performance itself. It is truly magical--if you are game; highly experimental, this production is probably not palatable to everyone.
The set consists of a couple of rolling platforms littered with junk both old and new: the semblance of iron bedsteads, bed pillows without cases, dishes and other detritus evoke depression-era Americana. Yet hordes of wires, flat-screen monitors, and a large table stacked with electronic equipment at the back of the stage, remind us both that we are in a performance space and that we are irrevocably surrounded and encased by technology in the 21st century.
As the play opens we meet the young writer/Williams proxy, played to brooding perfection by Ari Fliakos, who has just moved to the Quarter to write, leave his family behind, and discover his sexuality. He encounters the other inhabitants of the boarding house, including the landlady Mrs. Wire, and the dissolute though intellectual single woman Jane Sparks, both played to the hilt by Kate Valk, who is one of the most remarkable and unique stage actors in New York. Other inhabitants are a lonely potraitist, and a young heroin addict, both played compellingly by Wooster Group veteran Daniel Pettrow, and Nursie, an African American caretaker, whose stereotypical racial qualities LeCompte explodes by giving her a valley girl accent and casting an actor (Kaneza Schaal) of ambiguous ethnic ancestry.
The inhabitants' lives blend, the thin plywood walls keep out no secrets, and the young writer loses his innocence, but discovers his literary voice. Though this sounds a bit hackneyed, the Wooster Group's treatment of the evolution of the writer's creative process, and their use of technology to show us the words of the script that the young writer is simultaneously hearing, dreaming, and recording, is truly thrilling.
There is very explicit sexual content in this show, including video images, an oft-exposed (not real) phallus, and some physical staging of sex scenes. I never found the sex overwhelming or gratuitous; it is a major and necessary component of the piece. Some audience members may find it difficult, or even shocking, however.
Overall, this is an incredibly exciting new production by one of the world's most skilled and innovative avant-garde theater groups. It illuminates in a revolutionary way a little-known play by a master American playwright. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is definitely not to be missed!
(Vieux Carré plays at Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Aves) through March 13, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $25-$65, and $20 rush tickets may be available. For tickets or more information visit smarttix.com or thewoostergroup.org.)