The Wooster Group, Brace Up

Brace Up is the most recent work to date by The Wooster Group, a theatrical collective based at the Performing Garage in Wooster Street, Manhattan. The piece is a version of Chekov’s Three Sisters. It is, in some senses, even a ‘traaditional’ rendering of the play. All of Chekov’s characters are present and they say most of their lines; some even wear costumes approximating early 20th Century Russian provincial dress. The Wooster Group are however not afraid, indeed feel obliged, to take liberties that amount to a radical reinvention of classic or new texts. For over fifteen years, under the directorship of Elizabeth LeCompte, they have performed similar operations on source material as diverse as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Antony, and Timothy Leary’s Journal (the Group’s next work, Fish Story, derives from Eugene O’Neill’s play Emperor Jones).

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An early version of Brace Up, somewhat rough around the edges, was performed as part of a mini-retrospective at Tramway in Autumn 1990. It is to the venue’s great credit that they, alone among British theatres, have the vision and the will to bring the Wooster Group back. The finished version of the piece seemed, strangely, lacking in some of the magic which had characterised the sketch: the narrator didn’t have the same quirky control she had exercised two years ago; there was less of the stunning sense of transition from chaotic stage realism to moments of real theatrical transcendence, when an actor disappears and a character’s presence suddenly touches the audience like a ghost; and the dance scenes, though more professionally executed, seemed less genuinely joyous. In compensation, the whole piece had greater weight behind it, and a denser orchestration of a group of human beings bearing witness, individually and socially, to their impending catastrophe.

It is tempting to read the original Three Sisters in one of two ways: first as a series of linked psychological portraits of people languishing in varying degrees of despair at the realisation that nothing matters in their world; alternatively, if you share the characters’ disinterest in themselves and in the actual, you can see individuals as so many windows into different times and even different states of being. As far as it allows itself to be pinned down, Brace Up adopts the latter approach. The characters are seldompresent at the same time or in the same dimension. One by one they appear and deliver their monologues, either live on stage or live from the wings through one of several mobile television screens. They are introduced and egged onby the narrator, Kate Valk, whose double aim seems to be to put their selfish nonsense into context and simply to get efficiently through it all (LeCompte relates how she first saw Three Sisters performed in Dutch; Valk who was with her, knew the play and could explain what was going on: the role stuck).

In a world of collage and edit, details can speak for the whole. Among notable images, two stand out. The first is the handling of Andrey’s confession, from Act Three of the play. Willem Dafoe, who has revealed his character’s weakness as the worst kind – self induced – stands centre stage with his back to the audience. A television monitor is pushed roaring forwards to the front, where it relays images from a camera panning back and forth from Andrey to his sister Olga, who sits off stage. The visual complexity of the scene poerfectly conveys its psychological charge, while the interplay between ‘living’ and ‘mediated’ image looks like thought taking shape befor our eyes. LeCompte describes her multi-dimensional ambitions: ‘I have this sense of floating words in a visually structured space, and then floating beings; the words sometimes attach to the beings and sometimes they don’t.’

The second image is of the wizened old maid, Anfisa, also conveyed on camera. Infact she never appears in person, as befits her somewhat less than human status. Early on she is a grumpy and confused cipher of discontent, while towards the end, having at last found security, she opens up in a flood of sentimental memories. She embodies the clearest hints of one of the inspirations for the piece, footage of Russian women recounting their lives directly to camera, taken just before the breakup of the USSR. Their monologues remined LeCompte of the rantings of Chekov’s characters. It seems fitting that some of the poetry of BraceUp represents an elision of high literature and oral history.

Brace Up wears its serious intent lightly, though, in ways that can only be hinted at here. Built into the structure of every performance are devices that allow chance to play a dynamic role. When not carrying characters, the televisions send out images of Godzilla or of Kenneth Branagh as Henry V; there is a submerged conceit that the actors are in fact all members of a Japanese troupe, playing white actors playing Chekov; eerie mystic soundtracks fill the air; Irina, the youngest sister, is acted (beautifully) by a septuagenarian. In Brace Up as in all the work of the Wooster Group, gravitas and delight walk hand in hand. To quote Elizabeth LeCompte once more: ‘I like to take something that’s mysterious or attractive to me, and move in it. You know, find out what it is.’

Publication: Frieze Magazine –  Greg Hilty

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