Along with Richard Foreman and The Living Theater, The Wooster Group are one of NYC’s longest lived avant-garde theater companies, having produced nearly 20 shows over the last 30 years. Their latest, House/Lights, a revisioning of Gertrude Stein’s “Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights,” is playing at St. Ann’s Artspace in Dumbo right now. Sarah and I shelled out our $30 to see this play last night, and it is clearly the last Wooster Group show we will ever spend our hard-earned money to be annoyed by.
The play was nothing more than a collection of postmodern sight-gags, the most annoying of them the constant use of Macintosh OS9 system sounds as punctuation of the characters’ speech. There was gratuitous microphone handling noise, lots of running around and pushing desks up and down seesaw-like apparatuses on the stage, mediocre live video composition on a couple of monitors at the front of the stage, and a character who just sat at a desk pushing buttons on a computer. The most annoying bit of gratuitous postmodernism was the obligatory text inserted into the main text, which was a movie called “Olga’s House Of Shame”, a trashy period piece from what appeared to be the late 50s, about chicks dominating each other on an island somewhere as part of some kind of smuggling ring. Did this add to the meaning/’meaning’ of the Gertrude Stein text? Um, no. It did give the cast something to do, which was to sort of enact the scenes from OHOS while they played on the video monitors.
Yet I only describe incidents that happen on stage, and not a plot. Why? Because there was no plot. The entire production had a feeling of flatness about it, that it was an excercise to get from imaginary Point A to imaginary Point B, but with no narrative distance between them. Yo, people have been doing this for twenty years now. There is in fact nothing new about making a big techologically-savvy mess. And it’s obviously not impossible to use the techniques to either make a compelling spectacle or genuinely moving piece of theater — Big Art Group does live video compositing ten times better, Richard Foreman has people running around the stage and repeating gestures in a way that actually creates a theatrical world — there was nothing about this play worth keeping, except for possibly the Viper, who was kind of funny, the only gag that worked. Like most of the other gags, it had the feeling of being thought of during an incredibly stoned improv session — sometimes stoners are, in fact, funny.
Maybe our biggest beef with the play was that it seemed somehow disrespectful to Gertrude Stein, who doesn’t get enough credit for being an incredibly visionary babe. This disrespect came not only through the fact that Gert was only read through a ‘funny voice’ filter, which could have been OK in another context, but read through the interleaved crappy 50s movie a fascinating text was brought down to the level of kitsch.
Is the Wooster Group trying to tell us something besides the fact that we’re suckers? If House/Lights was a statement about theater, it was that cute irony and the cheap joke are more relevant than any potential meaning of a text. The first Wooster production I saw, Can You Hear, Bird, succeeded on the level of spectacle, and I left the theater satisfied, though aware that I had not seen anything that allowed me to think about the text it was reinterpreting. House/Lights left us incredibly annoyed, and frustrated that after twenty years the Wooster Group seemed to be moving backwards rather than forwards.