Early Plays – NYCP and Wooster Group at St Ann’s

Tuesday night took us to St. Ann’s Warehouse to see Early Plays, a collaboration between Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players and The Wooster Group. Early Plays is a collection of three of Eugene O’Neill’s “Glencairn” plays, woven together with songs by Maxwell, who also directs. In these plays O’Neill is drawing on his own experience as a merchant seaman, following a group of shipmates on the British tramp steamer Glencairn from port to sea and back to port.

The show is staged on the same set that The Wooster Group used for their productions of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape – so there’s an interesting continuity here, not only in the way Early Plays is constructed, but in tracing the history and evolution of The Wooster Group’s engagement with O’Neill. I haven’t seen their production of The Hairy Ape, but I still remember being blown away by the revival of The Emperor Jones at St Ann’s a few years back. Kate Valk was a powerhouse in that show, projecting size, power and intensity completely out of proportion to her diminutive frame. She’s just one of those actresses who can fill a stadium with her presence and performance.

Early Plays stands in contrast to the heightened theatrics of The Emperor Jones. With nary a Wooster Group device in sight – no over the top theatrics, no video, no meta-meta-commentary – Maxwell, the master of affectless acting and textual precision, brings his style and vision to O’Neill’s work to wonderful effect.

O’Neill wrote the script in dialect, essaying to replicate the poetry of the veritable Babel of tongues and accents on the ship. The Glencairn’s crew, drawn from seaman from all parts of the world, was a melange of scalawags – British, Irish, Dutch, Swedish, West Indian, Russian and more. Each character brings their own accent, vernacular and individual quirks to the group. We are left with the impression of a group of rough men from different backgrounds who share some common traits – a feeling of outsiderness, discomfort on land, restlessness and a taste for adventure – commingled with a sense of yearning for the normal life they could have lived but for some intangible personality trait or quirk of fate that has doomed them to a life of roaming the seas.

One can imagine a more traditional production of these plays where a dialect coach was hired and they tried to use the written text merely as a jumping off point to some kind of linguistic verisimilitude. But here Maxwell uses his signature simplistic approach to language to open up O’Neill’s writing and imagination in a richer way than “realism” could ever achieve. By having the actors stay absolutely faithful to the words as written on the page and deliver the lines in the affectless, declamatory style that is Maxwell’s hallmark, we really hear what O’Neill has written. And though at times the flat delivery of the archaic language can bring unintended comedy, mostly it works – and the laughs that do come are rarely disruptive or jarring. We are not thrown out of the world of the play by some kind of cognitive dissonance, but rather we share a subtle, joyful moment of awareness. It is eery, really, that these men, so far removed from us in time and experience, and O’Neill’s affection for them, his attempt to render them vividly real, still resonates with a modern audience. Not in a traditional realistic way, of course, but in a metaphoric way.

Essentially what Maxwell has done is transform O’Neill into Beckett. Slightly more naturalistic – the events that befall the sailors are tangible and recognizable but still resonate with an existential undertone. We are, all of us, lowly sailors on a ship of fools: prey to our ignorance and base desires, to our futile daydreams and the relentless wearying strain of the day-to-day. There are moments of distraction and interludes of joy, we strain again and again to connect to each other and find a wider meaning, but in the end we are vanquished by nature and time.

All of the actors are fantastic – the cast is made up almost entirely of NYCP/Wooster Group regulars, and it is always a pleasure to see Jim Fletcher, Ari Fliakos, Brian Mendes and the rest of the gang on stage together. Over the years they have developed an ease and rapport that translates well to the audience. The ladies – Kate Valk and Kaneza Schaal – do a lot with the little they have to work with. O’Neill’s worlds – and to some extent Maxwell’s – are male-dominated and the women aren’t given a lot to say or do.

The adaptable set – really not much more than a scaffold with pulleys – is used to good effect, as is a smoke machine and the lighting. Though abstract, we get the sense of life on (and off) the sea, the cramped quarters, the bad food, the instability and harshness of a life exposed to the elements and subject to Acts Of God.

On a mostly-unrelated tangent, I think back to a production of Mourning Becomes Electra that I saw in Seattle in the early 90’s, directed by Dan Savage and produced by his theater company, Greek Active. Like every good theater major, I studied O’Neill in college and he was firmly situated in the world of “realism”. While we were taught that he aspired to create great American Tragedies in the spirt of the Greeks, it was difficult to imagine how this stilted, wooden prose and these melodramatic scenarios could possibly be construed as great tragedy. I still will, on occasion, jokingly pull out a line from Desire Under The Elms – “Right purty fahm, eh, Eben?” (I totally know that I’ve misremembered the line, but I have this image in my head of Anthony Perkins, who I think played in it back in the day, doing a New England accent…).

Anyway – Greek Active’s Mourning Becomes Electra was performed, of course, in drag. I don’t remember who played the Clytemnestra character, but I think the Electra character was played by Seattle stalwart Charles Smith (memory is fuzzy, corrections welcome). The staging blew my mind. Clytemnestra was in huge platform shoes (think: cothurni) with flowing gowns. They were all heavily made-up so as to appear masked, and all the actors delivered their lines, in the grand tradition of drag theater, in over the top histrionic tones. The emotions were, of course, completely unrealistic, as was the entire production, and somehow the heightened theatricality and irreverence cut through O’Neill’s pretensions to get to the heart of the tragedy underneath. It was the first time that I could see -and feel- the direct connection from O’Neill to Aeschylus and access what the play was trying to convey.

The connection between this and Early Plays, I suppose, is that Maxwell and TWG, by stripping O’Neill’s work of its realism, are able to penetrate to the core, to the underlying truth of the story and break through to offer up O’Neill as he aspired to be, a poet of grand tragedy.

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