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Wooster Group's Vieux Carré an experimental triumph

Kaneza Schaal in "Vieux Carré"

Franck Beloncle

4 out of 4 stars

Once upon a time, if you wanted to remember what you ate for lunch yesterday, you might close your eyes, concentrate and try to retrieve that information from the recesses of your mind.

Now, of course, you can just check your Twitter feed to jog your memory. Perhaps you even posted a picture of your ham sandwich on Instagram.

If the way we remember is changing, then perhaps the theatre's approach to memory plays must change, too. That's the thought I took away from enduring New York experimentalists The Wooster Group's mad, media-filled version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré.

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In this 1977 play, Williams drew on his memories of living as a young writer in a French Quarter flophouse in New Orleans.

Vieux Carré was a flop in its premiere on Broadway, but its history makes it a fascinating text for fans of the playwright of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Williams began writing the autobiographical show in 1939 – essentially transcribing what went on in the rooms around him – and then revisited it every decade before finally completing it in the 1970s.

That timeline means Vieux Carré is both a young and old play, and it's hard to say what influenced what. Beautiful, brutish neighbour Tye McCool, for example, is both a prototype for Streetcar's Stanley Kowalski and a second-rate copy of him.

Along with Williams's stand-in The Writer and Tye, the boarding house at 722 Rue Toulouse is home to: Nightingale, a hedonistic painter dying of tuberculosis; Mrs. Wire, a loopy landlady whose approach to quieting downstairs tenants is to pour boiling water through the floor; and Jane Sparks, a fashion designer from respectable stock who has fallen – in love, and in life – for the drugged-up delinquent Tye. ("I'm afraid pride's an easy thing to go past sometimes," she tells the landlady.)

Director Elizabeth LeCompte's production strips the character-rich, but plot-poor play out of its period; the action takes place on a pair of high-tech moving platforms surrounded by screens both facing away and towards the audience. The actors take many of their physical cues from the footage shown on these monitors, much of which, I gather, is from the 1970s films of Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol and contemporary video artist Ryan Trecartin.

In addition to mimicking the movement they see on the screens, the actors receive a steady stream of audio fed to them through earpieces.

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All the while, of course, they are actually acting the play. Indeed, it's somewhat astonishing that the show manages to come out at all coherently and, at times, affectingly through the chaos.

Particularly effective is Scott Shepherd as both the flamboyant, phallus-clad Nightingale and the hypermasculine Tye. (In the scene where Nightingale molests Tye in his sleep, a body double enters the stage.)

On one level, the Wooster Group's approach to the material seems simply a fancy way of showing off by rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same. From an aesthetic point of view, however, I found the unorthodox process informed the play in surprising ways that that emphasized the fragility of our remembrances of things past in the era of the online taunt: "Pics or it didn't happen."

For instance, after The Writer – a sensitive, if occasionally panicked Ari Fliakos – recollects the night he lost his virginity to a paratrooper and innocently declared his love for him, a live feed of the actor's image is superimposed on sepia-tinged, slow-mo gay porn on a screen in the back.

The effect of this ghostly fellatio is more melancholy than titillating. It makes The Writer's sense of loss connect a very contemporary way – in a time when you might not just recall a ex-lover by conjuring his body in your mind, but by watching your old sex videos on your iPad. Well, that's what I got anyway.

Other aspects of LeCompte's staging criticize Williams's text instead of refreshing it. Played by the striking Kanesa Schaal, Nursie, an African-American maid, speaks in a valley-girl accent and her face is replaced with a racist cartoon every time she steps behind a video screen. Okay, sure, why not?

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With this appearance as part of Harbourfront Centre's World Stage season, the members of the Wooster Group are making their stop in Canada for the first time in over a decade. It seems there's more to their reputation than movie-star alumni and past glories. Audiences who enjoy experimentalism should be over the moon.

Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré runs until March 31.

The Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré

  • Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte
  • Starring Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk
  • At Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto
  • 4 stars

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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