Billed as "a comedy of ancient and modern life in eight scenes," the Wooster Group's long-workshopped version of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape will open its commercial Off-Broadway run at the newly reopened Selwyn Theatre April 3. Willem Dafoe stars in this avant-garde production, which began previews March 21 and runs to May 25.
The opening on New York's formerly blighted West 42nd Street comes just one day after Disney rechristened the refurbished New Amsterdam Theatre just across the street.
According to a spokesperson from the Pete Sanders Group, expected at tonight's opening are David Bowie, Eric Bogosian, Steve Buscemi and other cultural notables.
They'll have to cope with picketers outside the theatre from "The New Victory Theatrical Union Coalition," comprising members of such unions as the American Federation of Musicians (Local 802), Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers (SSCD), Association of Theatrical Press Agents & Managers (ATPAM), and IATSE guilds for wardrobe, ticket sellers, porters & cleaners, and ushers & doormen. The group claims that the Wooster Group's production of The Hairy Ape is "non-union," and thus operating sans contracts for the actors and stage managers, director, company manager, tech designers, and press agent.
A spokesperson for the production cautioned that the demonstration was not a strike but "an informational picket line." In other words, a way to gain control of the burgeoning theatre scene on 42nd Street, which has not yet formalized its union affiliations. For its part, the Wooster Group issued a press release responding to the Coalition's call for a boycott of the show. "The Selwyn Theatre," reads the response, "a movie theatre for the last 60 years, is also not a party to any union agreements and is not a member of the League of American Theatres & Producers. No non-union personnel working on the production have asked for union representation...[because] the Wooster Group...is operated as a self-governing collective. As such, the company is not and has never been a party to any union agreements."
The release goes on to say that Wooster Group has met with union representatives and have worked on drafting an agreement "to meet the unions halfway. Our offerings have been categorically rejected." The Group is, however, willing to continue discussions "in an atmosphere of mutual respect."
O'Neill's 1921 Expressionist drama tells of a ship's stoker whose sense of power and belonging gets shaken after a confrontation with the daughter of the ship's owner. Elizabeth LeCompte directs this version, which has been designed (by Jim Clayburgh) with movable steel parts that expose structural supports and interior mechanics of the set itself. Also creating the Ape mood will be video (Christopher Kondek) and soundscape, all "developed in relation to the architecture of the space." Jennifer Tipton designed the show's lighting; John Lurie, former member of "The Lounge Lizards," composed the music.
Also appearing in this experimental piece, which started as a work-in progress in 1995 at the Wooster Group's "Performing Garage" home in Soho, will be company members Kate Valk (as Mildred) and Peyton Smith (as Her Aunt). Rounding out the cast are Roy Faudree, Paul Lazar, Scott Renderer and Dave Shelley. The play was performed in Brussels in spring 1996 and will tour to Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin and Barcelona this summer.
As for the Selwyn Theatre, it was built in 1919 by the Selwyn brothers and remained a legit theatre until 1935 when it was turned into a movie house.
Other plays by Eugene O'Neill include Ah, Wilderness!, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Desire Under The Elms, Rope, Hughie, Mourning Becomes Electra and The Iceman Cometh. Dafoe has appeared in many Wooster Group pieces but is best known for his film work (The Last Temptation of Christ, Light Sleeper).
For tickets ($45-$55) and information on The Hairy Ape at the Selwyn at 229 West 42nd St., call (212) 239-6200. The production is part of the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Frederick Zollo, Nicholas Paleologos, Hal Luftig and Ron Kastner are producing the play along with Wooster Group.
--By David Lefkowitz