The Ultimate Avant-Garde Performance All-Star Cover Band

Two recent, ambitious performances have contemporary theater groups wrestling with the legacies of legends gone by. The Wooster Group’s Poor Theater tackles Grotowski and Human Future Dance Corps’ Coming Out of the Night With Names engages their history with Reza Abdoh.

In this essay, actor/writer and Culturebot contributor Tony Torn compares the two shows, intertwining his own story of stumbling upon Grotowski’s Laboratory in Wroclaw while on tour with Reza Abdoh.

This week, I saw two shows that take serious looks in the mirror: The Wooster Group’s preview run of their new work-in-progress, Poor Theater, at the Performing Garage; and Human Future Dance Corps’ Coming Out of the Night with Names at PS122. Before I talk about the autobiographical and self-inquisitory nature of these works, I’m going to indulge in a little of the same myself.

A little over a decade ago, I found myself racing around the city of Wroclaw in desperate need of a toilet. On a break from touring with Reza Abdoh’s company dar a luz, I was traveling across Poland with my fellow company member Peter Jacobs. I was already in a foul mood, wishing we had never left Krakow, where a pair of cute college students had invited us to a party. Plus, our traveling companion Agata had been teasing me about my weight (“you’re TOO FAT!” She would snicker, squeezing by me in the train compartment). But now, on top of everything else, the entire city seemed to be united in denying me a place to crap.

After storming into countless spaces off the Main Square and being rebuffed, I took a turn down a narrow alleyway and went through a seemingly random door. I found myself in an elegant, wood paneled lobby where a well-dressed woman answered me in English, telling me I would find a W.C. down the hall. Less then a minute later, feeling much relieved, my eyes finally started to focus on the photographs decorating the walls of the toilet. They were portraits of the legendary Polish actor Ryszard Cieslak.

It suddenly dawned on me that my bowels had lead me right to the original Laboratory of the ultimate theatre Guru, Jerzy Grotowski.

In a way, Grotowski was the main reason I was sitting on a toilet in Wroclaw in the first place. As a teenager, I had seen My Dinner with Andre half a dozen times, and become captivated by Andre Gregory’s tales of running through the woods with the visionary Pole. I had stumbled upon avisionary of my own in the form of Reza Abdoh, who had brought me to Europe. And now I had landed where that thread had first unspooled.

Peter and Agata and I spent the rest of the day watching six hours of Grotowski archival material on an enormous screen. The performers, projected nine feet high in low-res black and white, exploded with sound and fury and unbelievable physical strangeness. The work that Peter and I did with Reza hingedupon delivering performances of overwhelming physical, vocal and emotional intensity. I was convinced that nobody else had come close to Reza in terms of sheer exertion. What we were seeing flattened that naive assertion. This was clearly a vision of the mountaintop, Artaud’s definition of the actor as “an athlete of the heart.”

We were watching Acropolis, to many Grotowski’s first fully mature work, in which prisoners at Auschwitz build their own crematorium and happily climb inside, slamming the trap door shut behind them. Near the end, the camera focuses on one actor with a familiar looking clown face (Agata had pointed him out to us the day before, now portly and grey goateed in a Krakow café). He reaches up to the roof with twisted fingers while howling out a sardonic Hymn. In an almost throwaway fashion, his fingers slowly adjust to make a shape not unlike a shadowplay bunny rabbit. It was, as narrator Peter Brook excitedly pointed out, a Kabbalistic symbol for The Eye of God.

I looked over at Peter and Agata. Exhausted by the overnight train journey, and my ceaseless complaining, they were both fast asleep.

Eleven years, eight months later, I’m watching Ari Fliakos on stage at the Performing Garage, howling out a Hymn in Polish. His twisted fingers reach out to the roof. In an almost throwaway fashion, his fingers slowly adjust to a familiar looking bunny rabbit shape. The Eye of God. Around him, Scott Shepard and Kate Valk are likewise channeling Acropolis note for note, spasm for spasm. They are really scaring the shit out of me, which under the
circumstances is a very good thing.

In the first half of Poor Theater, The Wooster Group offers up a gently satirical account of themselves as serious investigators into Jerzy Grotowski’s legacy. They reverently observe archival material.They meticulously stage their encounters with Polish Theater expects, with profoundly unreliable audio transcripts as script. The approach is one of mock-serious attention to detail. Explaining why a section of audiotape is inaudible (rummaging around in a bag surreptitiously hiding a microphone) is as painstakingly recreated as the contortions of Grotowski’s physical exercises.

Then, as Ari, Scott and Kate start to rev up into their recreation of Acropolis’ climactic scene, the satire becomes somewhat swept away by their sheer commitment to really climb the mountain in front of them. It’s like watching a too-cool-for-school pop group do a blistering cover version of garage stomper from the dawn of rock and roll.

But to what purpose? This question is baldly stated in the final “recreation” of the first act, as we hear audiotape of a Grotowski expert’s horrified reaction to the whole exercise. When Elizabeth Le Compe expresses the desire to restage Acropolis exactly as it was first performed forty years ago, she is asked “But why would you want to do such a thing?” The answer is, “I don’t know.”

How you respond to the vulnerability inherent in that answer may well define how you respond to the show itself. The play is an open question posed by The Wooster Group to itself in a public forum. Grotowski the Guru has become the cliché, but the achievement of his company feels like the lost platonic ideal of the experimental theater.Where this company stands in relation to that model is a resonant question. It’s a question for anybody trying to work in the experimental wing of this
particular medium.

Traditional theater companies do revivals of the standard repertory ad nauseum. But if the repertory of the modern experimental theater exists not as plays written by playwrights but as total artworks created by writers, actors, directors and designers, how do you do a revival?

The Grotowski critic is clear that you can’t, as we listen to her continue to dismiss the notion while walking down Wooster Street. “It worked then. Don’t ruin it. Just leave it alone.” She has a point of course, but it’s a melancholy moment. Shakespeare lives forever, but is Grotowski fated to exist only in a textbook, or on scratchy archival videotape? Is that Reza Abdoh’s fate as well? Theater is about a living experience. Why not put together the ultimate avant-garde performance all-star cover band?

The second half finds Scott Shepard using his attention to detail to capture the mannerisms of embattled Frankfurt Ballet Artistic Director William Forsythe to brilliant comic effect, while the rest of the company takes the piss out of compact improv dance clichés.

Despite the lampoonishness, and Shepard/Forsythe’s zen-dude style, it’s obvious that their subject is a very smart man, spinning off valid insights about physics and the body, the nature of improvisation, the emotional dynamics of dance companies, commercial compromise in the non-profit world, radio waves from satellites, etc., etc. What’s galling is that he makes it seem so easy, while the Grotowski work looks so hard. His is the rich theater, as opposed to the poor one, complicit with all the rewards of full funding, and destined to be cut off at the knees when the board turns against him.

By juggling these balls of Grotowski and Forsythe, the group may be asking themselves how they are defined between these polar opposites. It’s a deeply autobiographical piece of work. I am aware that such an inward looking piece of music might seem marginal to someone outside the direct community of
theater artists. But I find myself relating at a rather absurd level of intensity. Can my reaction be trusted, as I am somewhat the ideal audience for this?

After all, it’s all coming back to Reza Abdoh’s summer tour of 1993, which to compound matters, was: a) the first time I met members of The Wooster Group, in Vienna; b) the only time I ever saw Forsythe’s work, at the Frankfurt Ballet; and c) the summer of my fateful search for a Wroclaw W.C. For me, Poor Theater is one hell of a strange Madeleine cookie. It brings to mind Steven Wright’s joke: “I’m having déjà vu and amnesia at the same time. I know I’ve forgotten this before.”

I’m watching another Madeleine cookie coming at me across the stage at PS122, in the form of Peter Jacobs, who we last saw fast asleep on a bench at the Grotowski Lab in 1993. During that fateful summer, he was playing Andy Warhol in the Reza Abdoh’s The Law of Remains. He sounds a lot like Andy now as he lays out a rapid stream of theater gossip, furiously dropping names (“We went to the Roundabout with Gene O’neill’s great-granddaughter, she has her own circus/John Yukuer bought us drinks, someone said it’s all Tennessee Williams’ fault”).

Soon the rest of the company is joining in this name dropping exercise: partner and choreographer DD Dorvillier (“Peter Falk said I’d kill the cocksucker/I’m not a cocksucker I’m a life giver”), Oren Bar-Noy (“I came in dressed as the Mona Lisa and Denzel Washington applauded”) and Heather Kravas (“we went to see Rip Torn in Anna Christie, but his understudy was on instead”) Then they all introduce themselves. (“I’m Oren!”, “I’m Heather!” “I’m Peter!” “I’m DD!” “And we’re HUMAN FUTURE DANCE CORPS!”)

“If everything dies,” says DD, “Do names die too?”

This is the overture to Human Future Dance Corp’s Coming Out of the Night with Names, and it acts as a funny little exorcism. Get the superficial memories out of the way, the Behind The Music version of life, and plunge right away into deeper water, while placating those shallow, egotistical guardians with a toast. It seems relevant once again to report on Peter sleeping through the Grotowski. In their rather beautiful collaboration, DD and Peter seem to want to get us past the rational mind as quickly as possible and move us straight to the Dreamtime.

The dream consists of a centerless universe where the director is missing. A basket of confetti seems to give its bearer authority to claim that role. But then again, the director is missing. He died almost eight years ago. The dream also exists as a universe where names mean much less then they
supposedly mean here in conceptual reality. But it’s not a grim place, neccesarily. The foursome play charming vampires and get naked together. They sing songs accompanied by Kenta Nagai’s amazing guitar playing. They wish each other success with the most complex activities known to humankind: “Eat Good
Luck. Shit Good Luck. Sex Good Luck. Sleep Good Luck.”

This dreamscape is also a place where dead people are re-encountered and desperately clung to. Orpheus fails to come back from Hades with Eurydice. The foursome seem to fail in their quest to bring the titular names back from the other side. They descend into the speechless world of pure dance, which the choreographer defines by contrasting wild spinning and solid inertia.

Coming Out of the Night with Names is both lovely and deeply elusive in its privateness. Like Poor Theater, it seems like a work for its creators first. We are invited as witnesses. This is the purest dynamic of the theater, but a dynamic that infuriates many audience members, and for good reason. But in getting so much from both of these deeply personal public interspections, I make no apologies. So many forgotten memories have been jogged back into place by these plays, and I consider this to be a very welcome gift.

Tony Torn has performed in many plays by Reza Abdoh and Richard Foreman, among others. He was Reverend Billy’s director from 1999-2002. Look for him as an evil Stepford Husband in Paramount Picture’s remake of The Stepford Wives, due out this summer.

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