In one recent show, they adapted Gertrude Stein adapting Christopher Marlowe. In another, they adapted a modern translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters. Now Wooster Group will again twist circuitously through literature, adapting for its next production Racine's Phedre, itself modeled after Euripides' Hippolytus. Due for a work-in progress staging in May or June 2001, Phedre will be "a soap opera of confessions and confrontations set against a torrid backdrop of Christian and Greek mythology."
Paul Schmidt, who adapted the Chekhov piece (Brace Up!) as well as created the troupe's 1994 Fish Story, has done the translation for Phedre, about a young man spurning advances from his stepmother, not because he's promised elsewhere but because he, too, is pining for someone else. (As ever with Greek-myth drama, through it all, the gods have their own agenda.)
Veteran company members Willem Dafoe and Kate Valk are among those rehearsing Phedre, under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte. Also in the cast are singer and actress Suzzy Roche (Wooster Group's House/Lights) and new associate company member, Frances McDormand. The latter won an Academy Award for playing the pregnant, plodding detective in the Coen Brothers' "Fargo" and is currently Oscar nominated for her role in "Almost Famous." Dafoe's film credits include "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Faraway So Close."
Ari Fliakos, Koosil-ja Hwang and Scott Shepherd comprise the remaining Phedre cast.
Designing the piece are Jim Findley (set), Jennifer Tipton (lighting), Philip Bussmann (video) and Elizabeth Jenyon (sound). David Linton will provide original music. Reached by phone on the first day of rehearsals on Sept. 11, 2000, assistant director Richard Kimmel told Playbill On-Line the show would have "a very American vernacular, stripped to the guts. It's poetic but not rhyming verse. We're toying around with badminton and ping-pong, lots of racquet sports. David Linton is working on music for the show, while also Kate [Valk] has been working with Suzzy Roche and Koosil-ja Hawang coming up with girl-band type rock songs. Yes, Phedre sings... Jim Findlay's set is extremely exciting and new, rather than a rearrangement of the previous one." Asked how the latest project came about, Kimmel said, "We were commissioned to make a radio play for the BBC, which aired in June, so we've been working on Phedre for some time already."
Like most Wooster Group efforts, Phedre will have a long gestation period and likely not see an official opening for at least a year. "We'll rehearse for two months," Kimmel said at the time, "then we start a fall tour of our last show, North Atlantic. Then we'll work on it so more before bringing House/Lights to France in March."
As if the new show and touring plans weren't keeping the company busy enough, Wooster Group is putting the finishing touches on its video version of one of their most popular productions, The Emperor Jones. Two benefit screenings of the video will be held Oct. 30 to raise money for the group's "gas plasma monitors" -- new television screens that will be used in Phedre and replace the TV monitors that have become a signature style-point of Wooster Group productions.
The last Wooster Group production, a revival of North Atlantic, completely sold out its autumn 1999 run and returned for a winter 2000 re-mount at the company's home, the 99-seat Performing Garage. Veteran members Dafoe (filmdom's "Light Sleeper" and "The Last Temptation of Christ") and Valk were in the original mounting of North Atlantic in 1984 and returned again for that production.
Other Wooster Group productions include The Hairy Ape (1995), House/Lights (1998), which will tour France in March 2001, and Brace Up! (1991). In 1991, the troupe won an Obie for 15 years of sustained excellence. That same year, director LeCompte received an NEA Distinguished Artists Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement in American Theatre. In 1995, LeCompte received the MacArthur "genius" grant for her work with The Wooster Group.
For tickets ($15-$25) and information on North Atlantic call (212) 966-3651.
-- By David Lefkowitz