PRINT April 1999


A viper has bitten me, a bitter viper: The play on words, and the singsong turnabout repetition, instantly channel Gertrude Stein, but are also in key for the Wooster Group and their patented line of mutations of classic modem plays. It has taken the troupe twenty-odd years to get to Stein, but their recombinant cut-ups of a wide variety of texts have always had the music of her language, and also its disorienting density. A viper has bitten me, a bitter viper: Language devouring its tail, the phrase has a skewed mirror symmetry, a paradoxical logic that shouldn’t make sense but does. All this has a Wooster Group history, as does the line’s wit—and also its knowledge that something is wrong.

Wooster productions generally fracture narrative, action, and speech so that the audience scatters its attention over the scene, never knowing quite where to look. The leveling equality of their approach hides or remodels the landmarks of the text, and of theatrical performance generally. House/Lights is no exception. A Cuisinart version of Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, from 1939, it also leans on a soft-core bondage movie from 1964, Olga’s House of Shame—a typical Wooster fusion, each unlike drama sounding chords in the text of the other. Physically, much of the stage play pantomimes the Perils-of-Pauline pace and tone of a silent film; and although Kate Valk, who doubles as Faust and Elaine (a character from Olga), and Suzzy Roche, as Mephistopheles and Olga herself, give powerful performances, the concept of character seems mostly superfluous here, setting audiences adrift in a sea of disconnection.

The set is a metallic grid, cluttered but austere. A bar divides action from audience. Ramps and rails partition the playing area into a series of parallel tiers, and to either side, a pair of steel seesaws act as tracks for wheeled tables that the careering actors run sidewise and up and down, with cavernous rumbles and bangs. The place is an obstacle course—you keep worrying someone will break an ankle.

In Stein’s version of the Faust tale, the doctor’s Mephistophelian bargain allows him to harness the power of electricity, and House/Lights, which is directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, takes electricity and light as currents both literary and visual. Near the front of the stage, a row of four clear, very large glass lightbulbs is rigged to dip and rise, their filaments glowing with intensities running from faint yellow to fierce. A number of televisions in different parts of the set play a range of images exposed to a range of processes: sometimes black-and-white, sometimes color, sometimes both at the same time; sometimes film clips (I rccognized Young Frankenstein but not the selections from Olga’s House of Shame, I’m embarrassed to say), sometimes the action onstage, sometimes the action onstage tampered with as it happens, through layers of color, freezes and delays, or fusions of one shot and another. The electronic texture this technology creates is amplified by a constant sonic backdrop—the quacks and whispers, blips and beeps, that come over the PA. The actors’ movements themselves may be miked, so that when Valk pushes her hand to her breast she sounds like a machinist pushing a lever. Her voice, too, is processed so that it doubles as she recites her lines—she is speaking in harmony with herself, accentuating the singsong quality of Stein’s phrases. Meanwhile costume designer Elizabeth Jenyon, taking a leaf out of Comme des Garçons, creates strategically bulging dresses that give the women’s bodies a robotic aspect. One actor works at a laptop, her movements sometimes seeming to produce the noises on the sound track; when this happens, she lifts her hand elaborately, as if the computer had a piano key’s sense of touch.

House/Lights is in one respect unusually user-friendly for a Wooster Group production, in that its layered confusions have a magnetic core: Valk’s mesmerically intelligent performance, controlled, humorous, and charismatic. Even so, this is a terrain with no obvious coordinate—or, as a key couplet runs, “Oh where oh where is here / Oh where oh where is there.” Expanding Stein’s admixture of Faustus and Thomas Edison—and so of temptation, corruption, and a determining technology in the quality of modem life—House/Lights applies its enormous metaphoric resourcefulness to our own hyperbolically electrified age.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.