Magazine article Artforum International

Devil to Play

Magazine article Artforum International

Devil to Play

Article excerpt

A viper has bitten me, a bitter viper: The play on words, and the singsong turnabout repetition, instantly channel Gertrude Stein, but are also in key for the Wooster Group and their patented line of mutations of classic modern plays. It has taken the troupe twenty-odd years to get to Stein, but their recombinant cut-ups of a wide variety of texts have always had the music of her language, and also its disorienting density. A viper has bitten me, a bitter viper: Language devouring its tail, the phrase has a skewed mirror symmetry, a paradoxical logic that shouldn't make sense but does. All this has a Wooster Group history, as does the line's wit - and also its knowledge that something is wrong.

Wooster productions generally fracture narrative, action, and speech so that the audience scatters its attention over the scene, never knowing quite where to look. The leveling equality of their approach hides or remodels the landmarks of the text, and of theatrical performance generally. House/Lights is no exception. A Cuisinart version of Stein's Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, from 1939, it also leans on a soft-core bondage movie from 1964, Olga's House of Shame - a typical Wooster fusion, each unlike drama sounding chords in the text of the other. Physically, much of the stage play pantomimes the Perils-of-Pauline pace and tone of a silent film; and although Kate Valk, who doubles as Faust and Elaine (a character from Olga), and Suzzy Roche, as Mephistopheles and Olga herself, give powerful performances, the concept of character seems mostly superfluous here, setting audiences adrift in a sea of disconnection.

The set is a metallic grid, cluttered but austere. A bar divides action from audience. Ramps and rails partition the playing area into a series of parallel tiers, and to either side, a pair of steel seesaws act as tracks for wheeled tables that the careering actors run sidewise and up and down, with cavernous rumbles and bangs. The place is an obstacle course - you keep worrying someone will break an ankle.

In Stein's version of the Faust tale, the doctor's Mephistophelian bargain allows him to harness the power of electricity, and House/Lights, which is directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, takes electricity and light as currents both literary and visual. …

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