The Los Angeles Theatre Center lobby looked like an international airport the other night. Russian playwright Vladimir Gurbayev was huddling with director Bill Bushnell about their production of "Sarcophagus," while one crowd went downstairs to see the Earth Players of South Africa present "Bopha!" and a second crowd went upstairs to see a modern-dance group from Los Angeles, the Rudy Perez Dance Company.
A third crowd had come to see an avant-garde theater company from New York. In fact, the avant-garde company in New York these days--the Wooster Group. Its piece, "The Road to Immortality, Part Two (. . . Just the High Points . . .)" had received excellent reviews, including one in this column, and the LATC audience was looking to be blown away.
It wasn't. "Road to Immortality" received four curtain calls, but only a couple of yelps. More important, the silent electricity that can flow between an audience and the stage wasn't there. The LATC crowd was trying, but they didn't get it. At least, they weren't going with it.
Maybe there were just too many images to keep track of, although the company's sheer theatrical skill should have made up for that. Anyway, the Wooster Group will surely be back, perhaps with all three sections of "The Road to Immortality." So here are some new and improved guesses about what they are up to in this amazing piece.
Start with a quote from their temporary Los Angeles Festival colleague, Peter Brook. "My interest," he wrote back in the 1960s, "is in the possibility of arriving, in the theater, at a ritual expression of the true driving forces of our time. . . ."
Brook himself seems to have moved on to more timeless concerns. But "Road to Immortality, Part Two" is specifically about our time, the 1950s to the 1980s. What were the driving forces in America over that period?
Two, at least. The first: a drive toward personal freedom. We threw off the old oppressive codes and looked for our place in the sun. The process could be as noble as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march from Selma and as banal as a Las Vegas lounge singer doing "I Gotta Be Me." But liberation was in the air.
Also in the air was a new barrage of voices and images, products of an Information Revolution. It was the age of the VCR, the Walkman, the satellite dish. We were plugged in as the 1950s had never been.
Both these forces promised and delivered a richer life. But there were side effects that we hadn't counted on. That's the concern of the Wooster Group's piece. It's truly post-modern, looking at the hubris of the recent past almost in the mood of someone recovering from a near-death experience.
The piece itself seems to break down at the end of its third movement, a better word for its divisions than scene . This device is supposed to be a mistake in art--what used to be called "the fallacy of expressive form." Here the chaos is folded into the form, demanding enormous precision from Elizabeth LeCompte's players. Sloppy this piece isn't.
It has four parts, each set at a long table spiked with microphones, as if for some kind of public hearing or panel show, the major forums of the late 20th Century.
Part I is low-lit and jazz-licked. The format is that of a round-about-midnight talk show run by an intense host who keeps everybody down to 40 seconds. He's got a lot of material to get through tonight. (Actor Norman Frisch doesn't spoof him; that's not the piece's game at all.)
Tonight's subject, ironically, is the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs. An all-male panel calls out punchy quotes from each and the audience gets to make requests. Things get a little disheveled toward the end, but words call the tune throughout.
Part II starts to get weird. We're in two time zones at once, watching a Salem witch trial and a 1950s congressional witch hunt. We're also in two truth-zones at once, for the cast sometimes zips through a passage as though trying to find another spot on the tape, reminding us that this is just a fiction. Remarkable how real it gets, though, when the devil starts speaking through the witnesses.
Part III is realistic and alarming. Here the cast becomes a group of actors goofing around waiting for instructions from above--i.e., the control room. Everybody at the table is happily stoned (we're in the '60s now) and the effect ought to be hilarious. It certainly is to them.
But you're uneasy for them, as for someone who really isn't in a condition to drive. When the gale hits--more voices out of the whirlwind--they're not ready for it. And this time we can't see the fictional frame.
Part IV is the morning after, rigid and glum and self-abasing. It concludes with an ersatz Latin-American dance number that slaps its conclusive beat like a punishment. The party is definitely over.