New York

The Wooster Group

The Performing Garage

For over a year the Wooster Group has been presenting in-progress versions of a performance work called L.S.D. The four-part opus shown here, subtitled “( . . . Just the High Points . . .),” in fact represents the completed piece. Both its conceptual framework and its dramatic techniques will be familiar to any viewer of the Group’s previous work, but it develops their singular style and their sociopolitical thrust to new and giddy heights, creating an astonishing, thoughtful, and very moving performance.

The work’s material is spun from two primary sources—Arthur Miller’s witchcraft-and-McCarthyism play The Crucible (1953), and a record by Timothy Leary, acid guru, called L.S.D. (1965). The two are juxtaposed, interwoven, fleshed out, adapted, twisted out of shape, parodied, and mimicked; ultimately they are served in a way faithful to their deepest significance, which is seen not as historical but as critically important to the state of today’s America. The Group’s principal organizational method is a dialectical one, and the Miller/Leary alternatives line up opposing lists of qualities between which the performers ricochet like indecisive diners: ’50s versus 60s, theater versus performance, earnest moralizing versus woozy prophesy, Communist witch-hunting versus counterculture wars, and so on. At the same time, similarities emerge, both in theme—the war between individual rights and institutional authority, for example—and dramatically, in the extreme emotional states each source enjoys.

The polarities are laid out from the start. Part one, “Newton” (Massachusetts; each section is located geographically, a Group trademark), is a lecture in which actor Ron Vawter allows panel members one minute each for readings from a panoply of counterculture classics—texts by Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler, Alan Watts, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and others. Part two, “Salem,” is a version of Miller’s Crucible played as a grotesque farce. The Reverend John Hale (Vawter), the prosecutor, speaks all his lines at fast-forward speed; the judge is a teenage boy (Matthew Hansell); Tituba (Kate Valk), a black character in the original, is played in blackface. The performance dynamic is now speeded up hysterically, now slowed to eye-of-the-storm quiet, so that the overall effect is of a controlled whirlwind of pleas, breakdowns, threats, visitations, accusations, and death sentences. Part three, “Millbrook,” is the truly cathartic scene that brings the twostrands together. While a sardonic babysitter (Nancy Reilly) intones mocking memories of her life among the altruistic acidheads at Leary’s retreat, the performers convert themselves into a rock band to play thematically appropriate songs such as the Kinks’ “This Is Where I Belong” and Lou Reed’s haunting ballad of adultery and sin, “Pale Blue Eyes.” On TV monitors, video footage by Ken Kobland shows an emptied-out rural landscape (Millbrook itself?); all the while Tituba spins about, for, in The Crucible, she will save her life if she can make herself faint.

Part four, “Miami,” is a typically offbeat Group coda, a sort of largo letdown from the spacey high of “Millbrook.” “Donna Sierra and the Del Fuegos” stomp around in a vaudevillian shtick of amateur dance, while a horrifying exchange between Leary and a drug-crippled questioner is read aloud. It’s an ending that resonates with irresolution, but which restates the contradictions that have smacked together throughout the piece. Baldly summarized, L.S.D. may seem an overdetermined, willfully conceptual potpourri, but this jumble of sources and techniques is in fact carefully assembled. The extraordinary performing qualities of the actors, the skills of the technicians, and the structural coherence, rhythmic clarity, and visual unity imposed on the work’s significant Babel by the Group and its director, Elizabeth LeCompte, make L.S.D. a performance high, dazzling in ambition and accomplishment.

John Howell