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Fate is cruel, and a bit crude

The Wooster Group's 'To You, the Birdie!' makes weird, heavily farcical sport of Greek tragedy.

November 12, 2002|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

In the opening scene of the visiting Wooster Group's "To You, the Birdie!" at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, two bare-chested guys wearing only kilts face the audience while binding their feet for what will be, yes, a badminton match in ancient Greece.

The two actors, Ari Fliakos (as Hippolytos) and Scott Shepherd (as Theramenes), sit behind a transparent, knee-high video screen that shows us in speeded-up refraction each man below the waist. As they continue making their athletic preparations, we can see plainly that neither is wearing any underwear. The two chat about politics and love, but their words are trumped by the prurient joke playing out on the screen.

When Shepherd compounds the joke by dropping a hand between his legs like a baseball catcher and flashing signs for fastball, curve and change-up, we know we are watching what might be called an Ironmax production -- that is, maximum irony all the time.

This latest piece by the famously experimental Wooster Group from lower Manhattan is loosely based on the 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine's classical tragedy "Phedre," about the tortured wife of Theseus who falls for her stepson Hippolytos while Theseus is off on an adventure. It is so loosely based that it raises the question: Why choose an existing source except to bash and plunder it for theatrical sport, which director Elizabeth LeCompte certainly has done.

The classical notion of tragedy stemming from cruel fate imposed by arrogant gods is all but invisible in a show whose aims remain inscrutable other than to demonstrate what whacked-out subversion of a text can be achieved though scatological humor and high-tech gimmickry.

Kate Valk, as Phedre, bound in one of the most painful-looking bodices you will ever see, mostly does not open her mouth but, in typical Wooster postmodern technique, is spoken for by Shepherd, who reads her words into a microphone, itself plugged into a reverb with a jittery delay. (Fun!) Sound effects, in fact, dominate "To You, the Birdie!," with errant badminton shuttlecocks (or birds) falling with the same sounds of broken glass that accompany David Letterman's airborne note cards on late-night TV.

Routine actor movements are underscored with odd brushing and scraping sounds, and when the estimable Willem Dafoe, as Theseus, returns home to the palace at Troezen and hears that his son has raped his wife (not true), his angry footsteps land with thunderous crashes.

Not to be overlooked are the watery sounds of waste elimination that accompany Phedre's numerous painful trips to an ancient Greek port-a-potty, assisted by a small retinue of servants evidently well-schooled in her bowel problems. What this has to do with her suicidal reaction to Hippolytos' rejection of her advances is not clear, but it must be said that watching an enema tube trailing from under Phedre's skirt as she scuttled grimly across the stage pushed the absolute insanity of the production beyond the recklessly wild into the truly weird.

Such antics can provoke laughter, but it's laughter at the thought you've ended up at such a place to spend an evening watching such a thing. The style, built on aggressive anachronism and ersatz ballet movements, is solemn farce that seeks, rather than a direct line of communication with the audience, a deconstruction of a Greek legend that replaces story with theory, human behavior with cool attitude. The quality of the actors themselves is hard to assess. Dafoe, looking like he just got down off the cross in "The Last Temptation of Christ," is all rib cage and gaunt muscle as he puts his voice and talent aside to portray Theseus as a sculptural form, more than a man.

The most striking accomplishment of the piece is the badminton match near the beginning in which Fliakos and Shepherd smash the feathered shuttlecock back and forth with the impressive agility of circuit pros while an imperious female court judge (Fiona Leaning) intones rulings fit for center court at Wimbledon. Too bad it doesn't mean anything except that these guys are good at something.


To You, the Birdie!

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood

When: Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 17

Price: $50

Contact: (310) 825-2101

Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Ari Fliakos...Hippolytos

Scott Shepherd...Theramenes/Reader

Sheena See...Oenone

Kate Valk...Phedre

Willem Dafoe...Theseus

Fiona Leaning...Venus/Referee

Koosil-ja Hwang...Marker 7

Dominique Bousquet...Marker 4

Suzzy Roche...Video Venus

Based on the play by Jean Racine. Text by Paul Schmidt. Music by David Linton, songs by Koosil-ja Hwang, Suzzy Roche, Kate Valk. Directed by Elizabeth Le Compte. Lighting by Jennifer Tipton. Costumes by The Wooster Group with Elizabeth Jenyon.

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