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 at the end of May and running through June, 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.)
The troupe are currently in France with their acclaimed House/Lights but are expected to be back in New York rehearsing Phedre in mid-April, according to assistant director Richard Kimmel. The show's spring run, like many Wooster developmental productions, will be open to the public but not to critics.
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 (costumes). David Linton will provide original music.
Reached by phone on the first day of rehearsals on Sept. 11, 2000, assistant director 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.
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.
-- By David Lefkowitz