PHOTO: STEVEN GUNTHER
Every so often even the most consistently brilliant artists may produce a lemon. Sometimes it is the result of experimentation that doesn’t work, but within the failure there are small gems. Other times it is the end product of an ill-conceived idea from the start. In this case it is the failure of self-critique along the way that leads to the final disaster. Such is the situation of the usually remarkable Wooster Group’s latest endeavor Cry, Trojans! At the end of two and a half hours we were more apt to roll our eyes, and cry out ‘what were they thinking!’ Indeed that is the question.
Under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, the New York-based Wooster Group, has become known over four decades for its audacious idiosyncratic re-interpretations of texts in such acclaimed works as To You! The Birdie (Phedre), 2002, La Didonne, 2009, and Vieux Carre, 2011, based respectively on Jean Racine’s 1677 tragedy in verse, Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera (libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello) combined with Mario Bava’s 1960s cult sci-fi film Terrore Nello Spazio, and Tennessee Williams’ 1977 coming-of-age memory play set in 1930s New Orleans of his youth. Each of these works was noted for its groundbreaking multi-faceted staging.
So rather than simply writing off Cry Trojans! based on William Shakespeare’s Trolius and Cressida, it is worth looking at what went wrong. The plot line of the play based on the Trojan War is familiar. Helen, wife of Greek king Menelaus, has been abducted by Trojan Prince Paris, and the Greeks have laid siege to get her back. On the other side Trojan Prince Trolius is in love with Cressdia whose father defected to the Greeks. Her uncle Pandarus is acting as matchmaker on Trolius’s behalf. The Wooster group attempts to tell the story from the Trojan rather than Greek point of view, casting the Trojans as oppressed besieged defenders and the Greeks as imperial aggressors.
The problem lies in the misguided portrayal of the Trojans as “a pastiche fictional tribe of early Americans struggling to assert its dignity as doom closes in.” Unfortunately the Native Americans were embarrassingly stereotyped in everything from the set and costume design by the Dutch artist Folkert de Jong, to the choreography. Perhaps this European artist was naively unaware of the reading of these props and attire, but that does not excuse La Compte and company who certainly know better than to embrace the clichéd “primitivism” of old Hollywood movies and grammar school textbooks. If it was meant to be deconstructive or subversive it missed the mark miserably. To add to that the choreography had the performers prancing and mincing their way around the stage, coming and going from their teepee, and squabbling amongst each other, like children in a playground.
La Compte states that their version of the play is “about sincere love corrupted and the downfall of a noble hero”. Thus there was something slightly ludicrous about the ambivalent gender of plump uncle Pandarus played like an old queen pimping for the feckless fey Trolius in his pursuit of the pigtailed Cressida who cavorts about like a twelve-year old. In all this it is hard to discern who the noble hero is. Paris the kidnapper of Helen? His brother Hector the so-called warrior displaying his bravado? Or the men of the tribe who first conspire to Cressida’s seduction, and then decide to trade her off to the Greeks in exchange for the return of one of their men, thus rating their “squaw” far less valuable than the beautiful Greek Helen.
This brings us to the other side – the Greeks. In this scenario they strutted about like British imperialists in their military headgear, one of whom sported an inexplicably silly overplayed Australian accent, in contrast to the faked Oxbridge tonalities of the leaders. Ulysses, Achilles, Agamemnon and their men were commanding and confident in their superiority, yet they all participated in manhandling Cressida. So much for their more advanced civilization! I was reminded of the 19th century anthropologist Sir James Fraser’s analogy of primitive people being to civilized man as children to adults and what happens when that language is reframed in a political context.
Finally, unlike previous Wooster Group productions the staging was conventional. Shakepeare’s text was kept fairly intact, with the exception of one bizarre interlude when Trolius and Cressida launch into several bars of the Beatle’s “all you need is love, love, love, love…”. However the recitation in general seemed strangely flat. The images on the two video monitors mounted at the back at the level of the lights were too small and far away to be integrated with the action below, even though the actors at times appeared to be awkwardly trying to mimic the movements of actual native peoples on the screen. It didn’t work, only adding to the confusion and at times making one wince at what came off as offensive parody. The one saving grace was an evocative supporting soundtrack by Bruce Odland.
Cry Trojans! offered little of the kind of juxtapositions that provide insights into our culture which we have come to expect from the Wooster Group. If it was meant to be about the misfortunes of love interrupted and corrupted it was laughable without being comedic or tragic. Both Helen and Cressida are in the end little more than trophies. If it was meant to be a political statement about who writes history it fell victim to its own misguided liberal intentions.
We forgive you Wooster Group. Analyzing and discussing Cry Trojans! failures has been its own reward. Besides, everyone is entitled to one lemon.
THE WOOSTER GROUP. CRY, TROJANS!
February 27 through March 9, 2014 Tuesday through Sunday.
REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
MIWA MATREYEK‘S SELF-MADE WORLD
I have been watching Miwa Matreyek’s work for several years now, and have become familiar with both her image vocabulary and unique ways of blending film and live performance. Her combination of projected animation and contemporary shadow play have a magical quality in which the convergence of the common everyday world with the fantastical create an immersive dreamlike effect. The constantly changing scale of the objects and settings that populate her visual mis en scene, along with the metamorphic transformations they undergo, would be enough to take you through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole into an enchanted universe. Add to that Matreyek’s live silhouette seamlessly interacting with the projected images in such a way as to seem as if she is manipulating them in the present moment. But Matreyek’s work is more than mere visual wizardry. Her ongoing narrative themes deal with the cycles of life and death from the cosmic to the individual, the beauty of nature, and humanity’s creativity and destructiveness.
Her newest work This World Made Itself is a thirty minute evolutionary journey traversing the history of the Earth from the Big Bang to life in the postmodern techno-urban global infrastructure. As in her earlier works she raises questions about how we as a species interact with our habitat and the larger eco system of our planetary environment, through the interface between the metaphors embedded in metamorphic montages and her illusionary interventions in them.
In Myth and Infrastructure 2010 Miwa’s life-size silhouette interacts with the projected environment. She holds a tiny figure in her hand. Buildings sprout up, a city grows and she walks through it. But then there is the spinning red apple and the ivy that grows over the city. The apple falls into the sea and turns into a spinning atom, an egg in a nest, and ends up in a mixing bowl turning into a cake.
Once again in This World Made Itself Matreyek propels us through time-space integrating past, present, and future into a complex unified realm of existence. Stars explode. Molten lava spews from volcanos. Fire gives way to water, plants grow, jellyfish emerge, fish swim. She swims with them in the sea and blue bubbles rise. Land emerges, jungles and flying insects. She walks through canyons and rock formations. The orbiting planet, the sea foam on the tides, the starfish and snakes give way to industry, oil wells and cranes uprooting soil, black smoke, refineries, chickens in cages, and a smoggy city skyline. She grows bird wings and feathers turn into missiles. The bombed city lies in ruin. And then it all begins again. Seeds, plants, snails, jellyfish, dragonflies, etc. all guided by her magic touch. It is a transcendent vision made all the more so by the uplifting musical score created by Flying Lotus, Careful (Eric Lindley) and Mileece.
Utterly seduced by the spiritual message and sheer visual beauty of the work, I hadn’t previously thought about the paradoxical contradiction in the imagery in which science and religion are at odds. Consider the fact that her life-sized hands make the stars and the fire and the trees. Her hands make the fish swim. Her fingers make the skyscrapers rise in the night sky as she looms over the city she traverses. When all fall to ruin she restores the earth as her hands make the light in the universe turn into new life.
Is Matreyek cognizant of the biblical reference, the suggestion of Genesis in her image as a goddess dreaming up and creating the world and everything in it? At the same time Matreyek’s passion for science is clearly at the core of her philosophical position on the nature of the universe and everything in it. On one hand we have Einstein’s interchangeabiity of matter and energy, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and String Theory’s waves and particles as a vibrating unity. On the other Evolution slams head-on into Intelligent Design. The title of the work This World Made Itself suggests the former, while Matreyek’s hands play into the latter with God as a kind of puppeteer. It is a dilemma because the ways in which she orchestrates the live performance with the projected video are what makes the work so magical and evocative. So the question remains –is this unresolvable paradox part of her story or an unintended consequence of her technique.
Miwa Matreyek: This World Made Itself and Myth and Infrastructure
Friday, February 7, 2014 to Sunday, February 9, 2014
REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tickets and general information www.redcat.org or 213-237-2800