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Kate Valk in The Wooster Group's production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones." Photo: Paula Court
Emperors and Empresses
By Jonathan Kalb

Emperor Jones
By Eugene O'Neill
The Wooster Group
The Performing Garage

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Mabou Mines
P.S. 122

Among the more amusing paradoxes of the 20th-century theater is classical avant-gardism--productions such as Max Reinhardt's Turandot (1911), Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970), and Peter Stein's Peer Gynt (1971) that acquired instant canonical stature despite their boldly insolent dismissals of long cherished theatrical traditions. Some would argue that their quick embrace proves that the directors weren't truly avant-garde. But even those rebels for whom marginalism is compulsory generally agree that these directors were extraordinarily perceptive, not only about the power of their innovations but also about how history and tradition had blocked access to what was once dangerous and fervid in the plays. The productions actually changed public perceptions about the classic works and the range of expression available to the theater.

The Wooster Group, one of America's premiere avant-garde theaters, has long been led by a director (Elizabeth LeCompte) so ambivalent toward advertizing and promotion that she has sometimes seemed to hew to a principle of marginalism, even as several members (Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Ron Vawter) pursued sparkling careers outside the ensemble. The Group's productions change significantly after opening to the public, and they often play in New York (typically to full houses of loyalists) without opening to critics. Recently, however, The Wooster Group transferred its production of O'Neill's The Hairy Ape to a commercial run at the Selwyn Theater on 42nd St., and The Emperor Jones (originally from 1993, last seen here in 1995) has now been opened to review. Perhaps LeCompte has come round to the mortal hope that some of her work will be recognized as classic. In any case, The Emperor Jones deserves it.

Here is a classic play that is virtually unperformable in 1990s America in the manner the author envisioned in 1920. An expressionistic station-drama with realistic first and last scenes, it depicts the quasi-mythical final night of Brutus Jones, a black Pullman porter who establishes himself as an exploitative emperor on a West Indian island after committing several murders in the United States and escaping from a chain gang. The Emperor Jones is famous for providing the first serious and substantial role for an African American and for overcoming international skepticism about the literary merit of American drama.

Unfortunately, performed today as written (that is, with earnest and realistic emotion by a black actor), the cunning yet superstitious and uneducated Jones too easily comes off as a racist stereotype ("I ain't 'lowin' nary body to touch dis baby. She's my rabbit's foot"). Moreover, the hallucinatory journey he takes through "the Great Forest"--after the natives wise up to his stealing, he flees and gradually reverts to a primitive state before dying--also too easily reads as racist because it depends on dated and trite symbols of Jones's fear, guilt, and ethnic past (drums, an alligator, and a witch doctor, for instance).

LeCompte's solution was to pare the action down to its powerful core--Jones's inner journey of self-destructive self- discovery--and then reconstruct its outer trappings using theatrical means that haven't grown stale yet. Hence, Jones is now played by a white woman in blackface (Kate Valk). Smithers, the Cockney trader who half admires, half despises Jones, is played by a white man whose face is famously menacing (Willem Dafoe). And both are dressed in soiled Kabuki robes and move with oriental formality. These are the only actors, apart from a stagehand in street clothes (Dave Shelley) who dashes about and occasionally joins the classical Japanese-style dancing. LeCompte has transformed O'Neill's multi-character, panoramic epic into a two-character chamber work, with the effect of streamlining its difficult questions of race and identity.

Anyone who has ever wondered what Brecht meant by "alienation" ought to see this production, with its cross-gender casting, blackface, interculturalism, and physical movement all working to encourage clear thought by making familiar questions seem unfamiliar, imposing carefully chosen sources of strangeness on the dialogue and action. During the first scene, for instance, Valk sits downstage in a fur-lined roll-stool on the plain white central platform, speaking into a mic attached to a rod she wields like a scepter, the unblemished powder-black surface of her face becoming a pictorial reference to regality that is belied by her crude and cynical speech. Meanwhile, Dafoe sits upstage of the platform, half out of sight, looking fixedly off to one side and never at Valk while "conversing" with her in mocking Cockney tones and sometimes riding herd over her lines.

The point is: all easy antinomies of blackness and whiteness, majesty and tawdriness, boldness and servility, insider and outsider, are placed in figural quotation marks on this stage. And that is fundamentally what O'Neill intended, I think, in setting up an uncultivated black as an emperor and a disenfranchised white as his aggressive yet servile foil. LeCompte has merely found means to let us see this for ourselves again, restoring theatrical life to what was occluded by antiquated style and language.

Smithers's and Jones's differences are obvious, but LeCompte saw that their profound affinities were the key to the play's contemporaneity. Both have platforms from which to express arrogance (political position and skin color), and both are determined to press their non-advantages. Condescension and insincerity therefore amount to sources of comaraderie between them--a sort of mutual backhanded acknowledgement of the void beneath the social "face." This Smithers and Jones are never really separated during the latter's forest journey. As she prepares to leave, they join together in a precise parallel dance (an Americanized blend of Kyogen, Noh and Kabuki performed to a rock beat), after which Smithers affectionately smacks her with a fly swatter.

The only material hints of forest in this setting (designed by Jim Clayburgh) are a few bent wires resembling vines tied to a pole and several leafy plants to the rear of the platform. Wide banks of fluorescent lights, electronic equipment with operators in full view, and three video monitors constantly playing upstage help generate the reluctantly technocentric atmosphere that has long made The Wooster Group past master at conveying themes of loneliness. Here, the monitor images are especially crucial because they resolve the problem of O'Neill's pathos, which is cloying when played as part of the live action. Grainy location shots show Jones's visions (speeding trains, a prisoner's striped pants), but more often Jones's and Smithers's faces, live and recorded, are shown in various states of distortion (unfocus, split-screen, reverse contrast, color fading to black and white). For one thing, these images are beautiful in themselves, and for another (since TV has become the Great Validator), they drive home the ephemerality of Jones's celebrity and the tenuous hold both characters always had on enfranchisement.

Not one moment of this production strikes me as gratuitous or unduly extravagant. Recognizing the triteness of the steadily increasing drumbeat in the original script, for instance, LeCompte wisely inserted silences and unpredictable rhythms. Understanding that the play was built around the melodramatic suspense of a countdown of bullets, she undermined that effect, upstaging the gunshots with wound-like pulsations on the monitors and having Valk cross nonchalantly to display her death wound, then walk off. Valk and Dafoe's sharply contrasting voices and demeanors were also blended with musical care and precision, with the humor of the thug-like Dafoe presented as a nimble oriental adding pivotal lightness to the heavy, brooding action. Avant- gardism aside, this is simply the shrewdest and most powerful production of The Emperor Jones that any of us is likely to see.

Would that the venerable Mabou Mines had done as well with Happy Days, Samuel Beckett's 1961 classic about a woman buried in a mound up to her waist during one act, then up to her neck in the next. Beckett has been the impetus for some of Mabou Mines's proudest work over the years, and it's hardly surprising that the group's grand dame, Ruth Maleczech, would want to attempt Winnie. The role isn't really right for her, though, and this production (directed by Robert Woodruff) also features a stunning set that isn't really right for the play.

As if reacting against the elegant Winnies of the past (Madeleine Renaud, Billie Whitelaw), and the respectably ordinary Winnies as well (Ruth White, Irene Worth), Maleczech plays the part as a sloppy, old, fat actress (or whore) who wears too much makeup and a ridiculously slinky bustier. All the famous lines she half-remembers seem to come from bad plays she either acted in or wishes she had, and her utter lack of refinement makes it unthinkable that she ever read what Winnie is really quoting (which includes Milton, Shakespeare, Browning and The Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam).

Worse, rather than the mound of scorched earth Beckett specified, set designer Douglas Stein has constructed a spectacular pile of shattered car windshields, marvelous to behold but deeply disappointing to contemplate. Its implication is that the problem in the play is a matter of human agency-- technology and the throw-away society--rather than an inborn burden to do with the naked fact of earthly existence. Let's chaulk this one up to West Coast glitz (La Jolla Playhouse co- produced) and hope that next time everyone involved will, as Beckett once wrote, "fail again, fail better."


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