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 again twists circuitously through literature, adapting for its next production Racine's Phedre, itself modeled after Euripides' Hippolytus.
The staging played as a workshop (then titled "New Work") June 1-July 1 and resurfaced as a further workshop this past weekend, Sept. 21-23. There's also a benefit performance Sept. 24, which was to include a gala party, but the World Trade Center disaster made a party seem inappropriate, so that part was cancelled. All the shows, except the $350 benefit, were sold out.
Phedre's new title, To You, The Birdie!, is in keeping with the company's wildly kinetic adaptations that can stray far from what typically constitutes a play revival. It's billed as "a soap opera of confessions and confrontations set against a torrid backdrop of Christian and Greek mythology." A company spokesperson told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 21) the new title derives from something the French would say during a classical game such as badminton. "When we were workshopping the piece as `New Work,' [the phrase] was something that was said a lot. It just grew from there."
Paul Schmidt, who adapted the aforementioned Chekhov piece (Brace Up!) as well as created the troupe's 1994 Fish Story, has done the translation of 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 recently returned from France with their acclaimed House/Lights and began rehearsing New Work in mid-April, according to assistant director Richard Kimmel. The show's spring run, June 1-July 1, like many Wooster developmental productions, was open to the public but not to critics. To You, The Birdie! will return January-March 2002 in a full production at the Performing Garage. Veteran company members Willem Dafoe (Theseus) and Kate Valk (Phedre) are among those rehearsing New Work, 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 (Oenone). 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, Dominique Bousquet 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."
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 and information on To You, The Birdie! at the Performing Garage at 33 Wooster Street in Soho, call (212) 966-3651.
-- By David Lefkowitz