Critics’ Picks

Exhibition view of “The Wooster Group,” 2019–20.

Exhibition view of “The Wooster Group,” 2019–20.

New York

The Wooster Group

carriage trade
277 Grand Street 2nd Floor
November 7, 2019–January 26, 2020

Negotiating posterity is a weird task for theater artists. Live performance may be impermanent by nature, but there’s limited virtue in being completely lost to time. Which is why this compact yet potent show from the archives of the mighty Wooster Group is so gratifying and compelling: It gives audiences glimpses—both onstage and off—into some of the most essential, influential, and ingenious productions from their nearly fifty-year run as a company.

Vitrines offer up ephemera for the browsing: performance stills, Playbills, scribbled-in scripts, meticulous set drawings, and correspondence both dryly officious and uncomfortably personal. Oddball props are displayed as though lifted from a cabinet of curiosities: Of what use was a bottle of glycerin from the Bran-Win Pharmacy? Did the gun ever go off? (I didn’t check what object came from which show, finding it more fun just to stare and giggle and wonder.) Video documents of select productions are also on view, among them Brace Up! (1991/2003), a transfiguration of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and House/Lights (1998/2005), a mash-up (of sorts) of Gertrude Stein’s libretto Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights (1938) and Joseph P. Mawra’s sexploitation film Olga’s House of Shame (1964).

Of course, nothing here claims to substitute for the performances themselves; all is rather more a portrait of the time and minds that went into making them. One exception: the eerie video re-creation of their seminal Rumstick Road (1977), a gorgeous, aching performance spun from the suicide of the mother of Spalding Gray (1941–2004), one of the group’s founding members. Made in 2013 by the company’s director, Elizabeth LeCompte, in collaboration with archivist Clay Hapaz and filmmaker Ken Kobland, it is a composite of various footage (including Super 8 film, audio recordings, slides, and photographs) taken at, and from, the show. Gray is now long gone—so too fellow performer Ron Vawter (1948–1994)—but this piece is no mere souvenir: It is a haunted house of mirrors, recovering and animating so many disappearances to create a profoundly present work of art.