We know what a circus is--as in Le Cirque du Soleil. We know what an epic is--as in "The Mahabharata." But what is the Wooster Group up to?
Everything that one has read about this New York company has suggested that it deals in collage, a juxtaposition of "found" images from the culture, whose meaning is left to the viewer.
That may do justice to the company's previous work. But it's insufficient for the piece that the Wooster Group brought to the Los Angeles Theatre Center Sunday night as part of the Los Angeles Festival.
The title makes you tired: "The Road to Immortality, Part Two (. . . Just the High Points . . .)" The piece wakes you up. Yes, it's collage. Yes, the images zip by as if they were on fast forward. But they also connect. Anyone who can't find the through-line of this piece shouldn't be driving.
"The Road to Immortality" is an appalled history of the United States from the '50s to the '80s. It does not show film clips of Marilyn on the grating, Elvis being drafted or Kennedy in Dallas. Those pictures are in our heads already.
It's concerned with something subtler: how the codes changed. For example, how hip we all got. Is there one person in America these days who wouldn't know how to behave on a talk show? That wasn't true in '55.
"Road" uses the hardware of the TV studio and the format of the panel discussion to make the point. The piece comes in four sections, but the characters are always at a table in some kind of studio or hearing room. No matter how spaced they get, they're always up for their next line.
It's a community of sorts. Everybody's glib and friendly, fortified both by chemistry and by the adrenaline of being watched. Don't worry about me. I always hit my marks.
The first section is as controlled as one of those late-night talk shows. It is devoted to quotations from the writings of the Beat masters of the late 1950s--Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg. We also seem to be eavesdropping on a one-way phone call from a bored woman who used to be Timothy Leary's baby-sitter (Nancy Reilly) back in the days before the LSD revolution lost its innocence.
Section 2 intercuts images from the Salem witchcraft trials (courtesy of a famous 1950s play, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible") with scenes from a HUAC-style hearing of the same period. The playing is dazzling, like watching autumn leaves being whirled around in a windstorm, but the witch-hunt parallel seems obvious. You wonder at intermission if the whole piece isn't a postmodern put-on: performance about performance.
Part 3 suggests not. Now we're into the '60s. Rock has hit, drugs have hit, and everybody at the table is feeling fantastic. Everything they say is hilarious. One of the women (Peyton Smith) can't stop laughing, even when she wants to stop laughing. This is as real as watching somebody choking to death on a piece of meat in a restaurant, and again it takes place amid considerable hubbub. Then the woman takes a walk on a ledge. Whoops!
Part 4 is largely staged in silhouette. We hear what Leary said to the man who was shot in the face by someone on a high (Leary said that it made him feel very sad) and we hear a verse from Leary's debate partner in the early '80s, G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame. Then there's a strange comic vaudeville number, reprising an earlier one where a figure is half-man, half-lady.
It's not as easy to add up all these images as it would be to total a hospital bill, but this isn't a piece that is simply diddling around with form. An indictment is being drawn up against the media culture and its false prophets, and we feel its justice even when we can't absolutely connect every image with a particular.
Director Elizabeth LeCompte and her company (it still numbers Willem Dafoe of "Platoon") are disturbed at the way we live now. This piece is their attempt at explaining how we got that way, without making a sermon of it. Not only would that be artistically uncool, it would suggest that they have a remedy, which they don't. They're as puzzled about what's happened to the nation's values as we are.
That's out there, in the piece. It mirrors a civilization that's become so sated with images that it doesn't know what's true anymore. As a theater piece, however, "The Road to Immortality" has a terrific certainty. If you see nothing else during the Los Angeles Festival, see this company.
Performances at 514 S. Spring St. tonight and Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m. (213) 622-3771.