nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 22, 2005
Poor Theater, the newest work from the much admired Wooster Group, is remarkable. Taking it in, I had an experience unlike almost any other in the theatre, and I stretched intellectual muscles that I seldom get an opportunity to work out.
Part 1 of Poor Theater is a reconstruction of, first, a visit taken by the Group to Wroclaw, Poland, home of the Polish Laboratory Theater (the company founded by the influential director Jerzy Grotowski); and, second, a rehearsal of a recreation of Grotowski's most famous work for the theatre, Akropolis.
A reconstruction of a rehearsal of a recreation? Believe me, I thought it sounded too precious for words when I read about it in the program—but it turns out there's real purpose in all of this iteration and meta-theatricality. Grotowski's notion of "poor theater" sought to bring actors closer to audiences and to truth by removing all the unnecessary stuff that stood between them and their objectives. The concept is realized, viscerally and actually, by the process uncovered in Poor Theater. Actors mimic their own actions in a completely non-theatrical setting. Then actors mimic the actions of other actors, as seen in a film of Akropolis.
Is this recreated Akropolis the same as the original Akropolis? Of course not. Is it a work of art?
Maybe. The Group's "new" Akropolis, faithful to the original as far as it goes, it all about context, or the lack thereof: the performers are only doing the final 20 minutes of the play, and they're only "doing" whatever they can see in the film, which is to say that all action occurring outside the frame of the edited movie is necessarily absent from the recreation. So the result offers precision and technique but absolutely no emotional connectedness. We can see that the actors on film—barely discernible to us in the audience, on a screen in the middle of the stage—are somehow more authentic than the live actors in front of us.
We then get a brief intermission to consider what that might mean.
Part 2 of Poor Theater is billed in the program this way: "The company pretends to be Ballett Frankfurt."
This is precisely correct. Ballett Frankfurt is the company that choreographer William Forsythe led for about two decades (it was disbanded in 2004). Forsythe apparently believes in a kind of improvised dance theatre, where the performers share common training and a common vocabulary of movements and then, placing a lot of reliance on trust in one another, actually create the specific movements dynamically, to the music, as they go along. (I'm abstracting here what I learned from watching Poor Theater; I have no direct knowledge of Forsythe's work, though I plan to obtain some.) It's clearly a dance theatre parallel to Grotowski's concepts, designed to strip away all the obstacles so that performers get closer to the essence of what they're communicating.
And the pretense of the Wooster Group pretending to be Ballett Frankfurt brings us closer to experiencing that essential style of performance. Instead of copying images and sounds, as they did in their Akropolis piece, the Group is assimilating the philosophies and strategies and tactics that underlie performance images and sounds—fundamentally, they occupy the psyches of their subjects (Ballett Frankfurt members, working at their theatre in Germany) and bring them to life, in a new context (i.e., as Wooster Group members, on stage at The Performing Garage).
And then in a coup de theatre at the very end, they wrap the whole conceptual package together with a reprise of the end of Akropolis, now fully assimilated into the new Ballett Frankfurt style, and finally achieving the stark cathartic impact that has implicitly been promised since the evening began.
This is smart, complex, rigorously engaging stuff; I think the foregoing suggests that Poor Theater is not a casual entertainment and is probably not for all theatregoers. But it feels de rigueur, to me, for anybody with a passion about how theatre gets created and what theatre can accomplish, intellectually and emotionally; certainly actors should want to take in this experience.
This was my first time with the Wooster Group and I hope it won't be the last; I'm excited to report that they're a group whose work, in the present case at least, entirely lives up to their vaunted reputation. The director of Poor Theater is Elizabeth LeCompte, and she's created something authentically extraordinary here with her collaborators. The actors are Ari Fliakos, Sheena See, Kate Valk, and Scott Shepherd, who is unforgettable as the "pretend" William Forsythe.