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The Wooster Group

'The Emperor Jones'

by Juliet Neidish

March 30, 2006 -- St. Anne's Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York

The Wooster Group, under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, understands dance. Although primarily staging theater pieces since its beginnings in 1975, the group has also created some works for film, video and dance. And in vibrant and varied ways, dance permeates its theater productions. For example, in their piece entitled, “Poor Theater” (2004), the actors “become” the dancers and director of William Forsythe’s ballet company. Helen Pickett, a former Forsythe dancer, was brought in to train the Wooster actors in Forsythe’s improvisation technique. Pickett later appeared in their production of “House/ Lights” (2005).

Dance is integral to the Wooster Group’s most recent theatrical offering, a dynamic restaging of the 1920’s play, “The Emperor Jones,” by Eugene O’Neill. (St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, N.Y. March 1 - April 2, 2006). Long-time Wooster Group member, Kate Valk is a tour-de-force in this hour-long production. She plays the main character, Brutus Jones, in black face, a role that was originally made famous by the illustrious African-American actor Paul Robeson. Although playing a black man, the audience at the same time continues to see her as a white woman, as we are privy to her long, curly hair and the exposed white skin of her hands. Ari Fliakos was riveting as Smithers, the only other speaking part in the play.

The play tells the story of an emperor of a small Caribbean island who has to flee when he is told that his subjects are planning revenge for his fraudulent rise to power. During his escape route through the dark forest, memories of the harsh life he left in the United States begin to consume and haunt him, ultimately leading him toward, not away from his doom.

The Wooster Group is wholly original in its approach to theater. They are masters at distillation and simulation. Their prop work and use of technology (microphones, sound, and video) is always ingenious and perfectly executed. They are notorious for “mic-ing” the actor’s voice so that it becomes a separate and unique theatrical identity. In “The Emperor Jones”, video plays a smaller role than in other productions. One television screen is placed upstage center. The hand-held mic, which serves sometimes solely as a microphone, and other times as a prop, is integral to the action. The physicality of Brutus and Smithers is purposefully honed and very much defines the visual aspect of the production.

Voice and movement predominate, bringing the expressionism of the play to a new level. These two figures are specific about their stances, poses, and movement patterns, throughout the stage space, both individually, and in relation to one another. Dressed in black, a third figure called the Stage Assistant (Scott Shepherd) either shadows one of the characters, or forms a triumvirate with the other two. He also sets and removes props as is called for as the story progresses. As the Wooster Group belongs to the genre of avant-garde physical theater, I would not be surprised to see a physical awareness within the production. However, Valk and Fliakos are as in command of their bodies as they are of their voices. This in itself is exciting from a dancer’s point of view, and it is not at all usual to experience a director who figures in so prominently the effect that physical definition can have on the visual power and emotional strength of a play. (Ingmar Bergman is one of the few directors that I can think of who also has sought to fuse his theatrical productions with a fully developed physical presence.)

“The Emperor Jones” production goes one step further. It includes actual choreographies set within the story’s telling. Early in the play, Jones and Smithers execute two stylistically similar dances, the second a kind of variation of the first, during the explication of the plot. These are like a world dance composite of Balinese, Japanese Shogun period, Macarena, and hip-hop. On some collective level of the imagination, the dances connect to the Japanese kimono reference of the costumes. What is completely unexpected is that these two dances serve less to further or embellish the plot, than to interrupt it. They are essentially musical and choreographic divertissements, not unlike the dances that had been inserted into late 17th-century French court ballet and opera. Appearing early in the story, before Brutus is fully caught up in his downward spiral, these choreographies create an other-worldly, yet entertainingly vaudevillian effect. They are eccentric yet personally revealing. Through them, the actors leave their mark.

The third dance however is completely interwoven into the story of the breakdown of Jones, as the recapitulation of his life and the role of America’s history ravage him. This final choreography, a kind of primal nightmare dance, comes to haunt the terrified and exhausted Jones, while lost and alone in the woods.  Fliakos, using a spare yet repetitive thrusting and retreating motif, moved back and forth on the diagonal, revealing himself to Jones as a mythological satyr pumped with testosterone in this densely distilled choreography. Totally possessed, Fliakos became the embodiment of an archaic wild beast or the frenzied heart beat of a black man in a white man’s world, treated during his life like an animal by his compatriots.

It is astonishing how a two-character play with an essentially bare stage and few props can produce such a concentrated effect. The flickering TV screen, unique projecting of voices, gamelan, gongs, ticking clock, and embroidered materials of the costumes, work mysteriously with the three performers to create a ritualistic drama that haunts its audience.

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