I saw this play by the Wooster Group at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn on 4/2. The Wooster Group is an avant garde theatre group founded in 1975 - - the original founding members are Elizabeth LeCompte, Spalding Gray, Ron Vawter, Jim Clayburgh, Willem Dafoe, Kate Valk, and Peyton Smith. They’re best known for their re-imaginings of works from the standard repertoire. I first saw them sometime around 2003, doing *Brace Up!*, their version of *The Three Sisters*. There are two things I remember from that production: when they created the show, probably sometime in the 80s, they thought it would be interesting to have one of the supporting characters played by an actor on a TV screen. He filmed his role and the other actors, onstage, spoke to the TV screen. The actor playing the character on TV later died, but they had the video - - so he was still playing that role in 2003. It was touching. The other thing was pure Woosteria - - they were in the middle of an involved scene in the second act and suddenly all the actors went to the back of the stage, picked up long poles made out of bamboo, and did a rather involved South Sea Islands sort of dance. They finished the dance, dropped the poles, went back center stage, and continued with the scene, as if nothing had happened.
The next thing I saw them do was *Hamlet*. They staged it as a mirror to a film of the 1964 Richard Burton *Hamlet*. The film was playing on a large screen at the back of the stage and the actors mirrored what was going on in the film - - sometimes they lip-synched to the actors onscreen, sometimes the live actors spoke, sometimes both. It was fascinating and whimsical.
*Cry, Trojans!* grew out of a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company for the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the London 2012 Olympics Festival. The Woosters thought *Troilus and Cressida* would be the perfect play, because it’s about Trojans and Greeks - - the Woosters played the Trojans and the RSC played the Greeks. They rehearsed separately and combined the two shows. I can only imagine what the RSC thought of the bizarre things the Woosters did with the play. But then I’m sure they were completely aware of what the Woosters do - - this might be a rude comparison, but if you hire Roseanne Barr to sing the national anthem…
The Woosters retooled the show for them to do alone, removing much of the Greek (RSC) content. When the Greek characters were needed, the actors wore masks and spoke in plummy English accents. Also their body language was a little cocky. Is this a comment on the RSC, I wonder.
The Woosters did many screwy things with the play, but I’ll only focus on two. First, they had the actors speak in a Native American lilting monotone, emphasizing the meter of the text in a way you don’t often hear in Shakespeare. And second, and most Woosterish, they had video screens above the stage showing clips of movies, which the actors mirrored, a la *Hamlet*. The highlight of the show was the love scene between Troilus and Cressida, which was staged as a mirror to a scene from *Splendor in the Grass*. Every movement from Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood on the screen was echoed by Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk onstage. It was hypnotic.
Shepherd and Valk were fantastic, they’re Wooster veterans and totally know what they’re doing. Andrew Schneider gave the other high point to the show, as a horse - - he had a rubber horse head strapped to his back and a horse tail coming out of his crotch, and madly stomped around, backwards, to give the impression of the horse running. It was stunning! And a special shout out to Suzzy Roche as Cassandra. Yes, Suzzy Roche of The Roches, the great sister act singing group from the 80s and beyond. She’ll also be in the Wooster’s *Early Shaker Spirituals*, which I’m seeing in May. One general note about *Cry, Trojans!*: it was missing the playfulness of other Wooster productions, and the playfulness wasn’t replaced by anything equally satisfying. I would describe the show as “fascinating” rather than “good”. I guess this would be a good opportunity to use a favorite term, Glorious Mess.
Let me go on a bit more about Shakespeare, chez Wooster. The text took a back seat in the show. If you want to see a straightforward, lucid production of a Shakespeare play, one that puts the text on the stage and gives life to the drama, you can go to American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, or the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC, or you could see Jude Law playing Hamlet on Broadway. If you want to see Shakespeare done in a completely fresh and yes, somewhat incomprehensible way, then you go to the Wooster Group! They took *Troilus and Cressida* and put it in a blender with Native American accents, Native American singing and dancing, deliberately amateurish costume, set, and wig design, inventive sound design (again with the sound design!), blessedly brief flashes of flabby nudity, references to The Beatles, and clips from classic Hollywood movies. The resulting smoothie is not consistently interesting, but it is theatrical, it is original. If it’s pure Shakespeare you’re looking for, you can read it in a book.