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Los Angeles Fesitval : 'HIGH POINTS': SAUCY BREW FROM WOOSTER GROUP

August 30, 1987|BARBARA ISENBERG

MONTREAL — The stage is filled by a long table reminiscent of congressional hearings, and the characters at that table have names like Timothy Leary, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. At the far end of the table, sporadically reciting information that comes her way via a headset, is an actress playing Ann Rower, a baby sitter for Leary during the LSD guru's Cambridge days.

It's the '50s and '60s according to the Wooster Group, a New York-based ensemble that lands in Los Angeles next Sunday. Wooster makes its West Coast debut at the Los Angeles Festival with "The Road to Immortality: Part Two (. . . Just the High Points . . . )" a controversial multimedia play heralded by at least one major critic as "powerful visionary theater."

The Wooster Group, which gets its name from the SoHo street housing its theater, has been trekking the globe with "High Points" on and off since 1984. The play was presented in Montreal recently at the Theatre Festival of the Americas and played Europe last fall and Smith College this summer. A work-in-progress for much of its history, the show has evolved through a series of adventures as convoluted as the onstage happenings.

It was artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte's interest in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" that initiated the group's writing of "High Points," LeCompte explained in an interview between shows at Montreal's Centaur Theatre. Reviewing Wooster's "Route 1&9 (The Last Act)" in 1981, a New York Times critic suggested that Wooster scrap its "avant-garde detritus" and start presenting plays. LeCompte says she took the suggestion to heart, read a lot of plays, and chose to present "The Crucible."

But Wooster's "Crucible" was hardly conventional. For one thing, LeCompte envisioned it as about 45 minutes of "high points" from the play. For another, besides asking for permission to produce Miller's classic portrayal of the Salem witch hunts, she and colleagues began adding such contemporary trappings as readings from Ginsberg, music from Maynard Ferguson and excerpts from the G. Gordon Liddy / Timothy Leary "debates."

Permission never was granted. Miller objected, referring to "blatant parody" in one press account, worrying aloud in another that actors "verbally maul" his play. Miller's lawyers threatened legal action, and the piece was altered considerably (and retitled) in the mid-'80s amid heavy publicity.

"High Points" is classic Wooster fare. Earlier Wooster plays have taken chunks of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and T. S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" and tossed them into multimedia stews. "High Points" built on such precedent.

"I don't really know these plays until we start exploring them for our own purpose," LeCompte said in a published interview several years ago. "I'm discovering them for the first time, right before your eyes."

Exploring those plays with her have long been such Wooster Group colleagues as Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe (with whom she lives). Wooster Group members own and operate the Performing Garage, their New York home base, as well as collaborate in the writing of theater pieces.

"High Points" was typical. "I would set up a structure," explains the show's director LeCompte, "but because we know each other so well and we've been working together for so long, the performers in the company pick up right away and I can pick up from them right away and (we can) take an idea to its natural conclusion or its unnatural conclusion."

LeCompte, who has been called "the Mama of Dada theater," appears to pack as much into one hour offstage as her company does into two hours on stage. Seated in a corner of the Centaur's small, cluttered dressing room, she simultaneously talks with a reporter, answers questions from her actors and ministers to the needs of 5-year-old son Jack Dafoe.

Idly twisting wisps of hair around her finger as she talks, she speaks in almost a monotone as she obligingly and methodically describes "High Points." The fact that one segment of the show re-enacts a rehearsal done after the actors took acid is delivered with the same intonation as her initial concern that Wooster didn't have a large enough company to perform "The Crucible."

Many theater critics have referred to LeCompte's work as theatrical collage--she studied fine art at Skidmore College--and that was certainly the case on "High Points." A separate Wooster project involving short film studies of a record by Timothy Leary was in rehearsal during the same time as a production of "The Crucible." LeCompte had meanwhile opened rehearsals to audiences, and when the show fell short of a night's worth, she combined the two projects.

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