New York

Frank Dell's The Temptation of Saint Antony

The Performing Garage

Ladies and gentleman, Lenny Bruce! Or at least his alter ego, Frank Dell, via director Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group. Add to this a hotel room in Washington, D.C., a sunset in the desert, takes on Gustave Flaubert, Ingmar Bergman, and “trance writer” Geraldine Cummins, and a dash of Peter Sellars—and what you wind up with is part three of the group’s trilogy, “The Road to Immortality,” which cleverly, perversely overwhelms the viewer with its magnificent multidimensional mixed-media multiplicity.

Any attempt to define the performance in terms of simple structure and meaning would be antithetical to the experience itself. Better to approach it, as with most Wooster Group works, in terms of its dynamics—its speed, phrasing, rhythm, and juxtapositions. Ideas and story fragments are related not linearly, but through an intricate weave of subtexts, so that the resulting theater never registers as a reenactment of experience. The audience is forced to make its own connections, yet the pace of the performance prevents it from lingering too long on any one event. Characters constantly seek a sense of place or identity within a chaos of life, death, sex, spirituality, beauty, truth, fantasy, and magic. Yet for all its ranting about everything, Frank Dell . . . is never didactic, just phantasmically insightful.

“Testing for sound,” mumbles Frank (Ron Vawter) almost inaudibly, in a deadpan, husky, ironic voice that somehow brings to mind Leonard Cohen. Three video monitors, three glaring fluorescent lights, and three large, yellow, translucent bulbs are appended to the horizontal layers of scaffolding that form the set. In front of this structure, Frank, wearing dark glasses, delivers a monologue that meanders through questions about God, reality, and the universe. He also appears on tape as the host of a nude talk show, while—live—he fills in the various voices of the guests, as well as his own; they, on the silent monitors, in a sense lip-sync their own dialogue. Frank is shown interviewing the happy participants, who smile broadly, dumbly, as his necessarily one-sided conversation blends philosophical observation with oversexed conclusions. The women Frank interviews are transformed into sirens—enigmatic, tempting fantasies, at least until they speak. In one sequence, casting his guest as sphinx and chimera, Frank asks what she has come to tell him. She answers, “Ummm,” to which he responds, “Are you being, like, mysterious . . . ?” “Yeah," she says. Some of the funniest bits occur in these video episodes, such as when the camera closes in on the guests’ “nether regions” as they sway in line, and then unabashedly halts for freeze-frame crotch shots.

Anchors to reality—mostly in the form of local references—prevent the viewer from being too seduced by the hallucinatory quality of Frank’s experiences. Typically, the Wooster Group exhibits little interest in artifice—even the traveling magic show in this performance has to be saved by the King of Sweden or it will be exposed as fake. The set, too, is virtually constructed before our eyes. A huge platform rises from behind, giving the space an unexpected depth, and creating a back wall with doors on it. When cued by a “knock, knock,” these doors are subjected to grand-slamming entrances and exits; two characters are temporarily strapped to them. All this occurs amidst a frenzied, superbly executed dialogue between two characters.

By the end, one senses that Frank is drifting further and further away into his own reality. Walking into the audience, he rambles eloquently about beauty, as if in a trance. Like Flaubert’s Saint Antony, who is described as having felt “a delirious desire to unite himself with the Spirit of Universal Being,” Frank fades into the embracing darkness. We are left with a voice echoing from the one monitor still on: “Frank, speak to me . . . over here . . . something wrong? . . . Frank, speak to me . . .”

Melissa Harris