The Wooster Group
CRY TROJANS! (Troilus and Cressida)
REDCAT, Los Angeles, 27 February 2014 (now closed)
Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte
IMITATION WITHOUT AN ORIGINAL: this phrase, now a slogan of the postmodern, long detached from any author, could be the motto of the Wooster Group, the New York City theater collective that has been producing challenging performances for just shy of 40 years. Their technologically layered yet rough-hewn project of theatrical pastiche remixes the detritus of high culture, mass culture, and any cultures in between, offering productions that point toward the ways all these cultures produce the authenticity of their own source texts. Recently — and this seems to have happened in part by design and in part by chance — the company has turned its sights on that great icon of the originality and fakery of the theater, Shakespeare. At once utterly irreverent and unusually alert to the not wholly dissolvable power of Shakespeare’s work, the Wooster Group, having brilliantly reworked Hamlet, returned to Shakespeare this Spring with a completely preposterous and seriously probing, if flawed, production of Troilus and Cressida. Though now closed, it’s worth considering the peculiar hybrid of imitation, authenticity, and history in Cry, Trojans!: what the production aimed for, and why parts of it, so provocatively, failed.
Plain description of the genesis of the production will be useful in understanding what the Wooster Group is up to. In 2012, the year of the London Olympics, the Royal Shakespeare Company hosted a “World Shakespeare Festival,” during which companies from around the world staged all of Shakespeare’s plays over a span of eight months. The Wooster Group, in collaboration with actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, produced Troilus and Cressida. In the original production, the companies mimicked the legendary divide of the story of the siege of Troy: actors from the Wooster Group played the Trojans, the British actors playing the Greeks. Elizabeth LeCompte directed the Wooster Group; Mark Ravenhill, the playwright best known for Shopping and Fucking, directed the RSC troupe, each company rehearsing mostly separately. The productive difficulty of integrating the two companies on stage became a way to tease out the drama of Shakespeare’s military tragedy.
Cry Trojans! is this production of Troilus and Cressida, with the large difference that the actors from the RSC are absent. In their absence, American actors now play the Greek roles. This is not a simple substitution but rather an added layer of citation: the new actors are not simply playing the Greek parts, they are playing the parts as played by the British actors from the London production, accents and all. Those who recall the Wooster Group’s Hamlet will spot an emergent technique: in that production, the company imitated the voices and staging of the 1964 Broadway version starring Richard Burton. The Wooster Group, that is, turns the great liability of American Shakespeare — painful and derivative attempts to imitate putatively authoritative British originals — into a blatant and naive strength: the strenuous and obvious attempt to mimic some revered company or production turns the Wooster Group’s Shakespeares into a commentary on the practices of postcolonial abjection that continue to ghost all too many American stagings. The unapologetic incorporation of the voices and gestures of, say, Richard Burton is bound to fail, and the space between the aspiration to imitate purely and the inevitable failure produces a strange frisson.
To understand what the Wooster Group does with that tension, it’s useful to revisit the difficulties that attend any production of Troilus. The Shakespearean text is so difficult that even the authoritative Arden editor, casting about for a generic label to describe the play, settles more than once on the utterly anachronistic “avant-garde.” No one has ever been confident about how to classify the play. Shakespeare’s rendering of the siege of Troy invites, only to frustrate, whatever generic expectations audiences may bring to the familiar myth.
Cry Trojans! manages the intransigence of the source text in a key staging decision (one that carries over from the “original” Wooster Group/RSC production) that fundamentally shapes what the production is able to say: they represent the Trojans as American Indians. This choice, both fascinating and disturbing, becomes even more provocative through an account of its origins. As a veteran of the company, Kate Valk, describes it:
We were reading the play and I thought what was wrong with our reading was that we were pretending that we understood what we were saying. I just said, ‘Oh, we should say it like Indians,’ because I was thinking of English as a second language. I don’t know, it just came to me. It’s not like having a problem to solve and wondering how we are going to solve it. It was just in the moment. I guess we all grew up on TV and film, an iconography of a formal relationship where someone has to come and meet not their oppressor, but someone who is more dominant.
These “Indians” are not the subject of fieldwork or local knowledge, but the icons of American mass culture. Valk stresses their place in a structure of domination, which, somewhat idiosyncratically, she distinguishes from oppression: the superiority of the invaders is present at the moment of contact, but it’s not yet structural. The production works with this iconography of the all-American Hollywood “Indian” at several levels. First, the Trojan characters speak as though alienated from the words the text has given them to say. Valk herself uncannily embodies this affect, portraying Cressida as some postmodern Pocahontas, at once Trojan princess and an embodiment of Fredric Jameson’s resonant observation that the hallmark of the postmodern is the “waning of affect.” In pigtails and ornamented dresses that could be castoffs from John Ford’s The Searchers, the deadpan steadiness with which she portrays Cressida is an astonishing achievement of willed ignorance. Valk’s ability to erase herself while suggesting that there has been, all along, nothing at all to erase makes her now the paradigmatic Wooster Group performer.
Scott Shepherd, earlier the Group’s Hamlet and now Troilus, similarly has become an icon of downtown theater because, macho vessel open to any content, he evokes the original of an American ideal of masculinity that equates affectlessness with authenticity. The stoic “noble savage” and the Marlboro man alike wear the resistance to feeling as the sign of that within which passeth show. The odd trick here is that the surest guarantee of feeling is the performance of affectlessness — a trick that relies, at least partly, on the cliché that the apparent stoicism of “Indians” contains a surpassing emotional depth and wisdom. When Shepherd galumphs around the stage in a half-hearted imitation of the Inuit dances we see screened on a pair of television monitors, the very awkwardness of the dance, its studied gracelessness, tells us that something serious is afoot.
As Valk’s and Shepherd’s performances suggest, the core of Cry Trojans! is not some canny reflection on race or genocide in American culture — although more on this below. Instead, the force of the piece has to do with its deliberate undermining of pieties around the performance of Shakespeare and, with Cry, Trojans!, tricky games with gender. Here, it’s worth recalling that if anyone can be called the author of the phrase, “imitation without an original,” it would be Judith Butler, who wrote over 20 years ago that “Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.” This formulation describes with some precision the paradoxical force of imitation in Cry Trojans! On the one hand, race, gender, and Shakespeare are empty originals, produced by imitation. On the other, imitation has a productive force, and produces the original that would not exist without it: mimesis produces poesis. Once an original has been produced, through whatever art or whatever artifice, its priority over imitation cannot be questioned: it is there.
Take a moment of Cressida’s anguish: “I just want to die!” Valk exclaims. Behind her, on monitors on the edges of the stage, a Hollywood scene, equally anguished, plays; her gestures echo Hollywood. Is the line itself, which is not Shakespearean, from the scene that silently plays behind her? The most attenuated imitation becomes the signature of a passion that the affectless Valk otherwise does not allow herself. This staging emphasizes that emotion does not originate in the psyche; rather the psyche constitutes itself by imitating and performing what it sees in other source texts, whether Hollywood or Shakespeare. But the fact that it is performed does not undermine its efficacy: as an imitation of video becomes an imitation of life, the line becomes at once comedic and strangely heartrending.
It is also striking that with all the games of imitation at work in Cry Trojans!, men play men and women play women. It is as if the work of rendering one’s gender “correctly,” affirming the properly imitative relation to the very role one produces, demands that in this respect, so to speak, the company must play it straight. The great exception here is Greg Mehrten, whose superb performance as Pandarus is at once, in traditional terms, the most riveting of the evening’s performances and also the one that challenges conventional performances of gender most compellingly. Pandarus, played as hermaphrodite, gets to own the affect that the others can only dance around. For this reason, and because Pandarus opens and closes the evening — and because, in this production as in Shakespeare, the plot goes off the rails about halfway through, as the opening love story becomes a tale of heroes behaving badly — the character becomes a strange sort of protagonist.
One twisted love story, the abduction of Helen, is both the model of the story of Troilus and Cressida and the basis of the conflicts of heroes. Hector, arguing that the Trojans should surrender Helen and thereby win peace, objects that she “is not worth what she doth cost | The holding.” Troilus replies: “What’s aught but as ’tis valued?” In this staging, that reply, seemingly so decisive, leaps out as its own negation. Troilus argues the Trojans should keep Helen, but here (and not only here) this universal claim about value spins out of control. No pastiche can reduce the question: Why bother with war in Troy?
And in this way, the stakes of the Wooster Group’s staging decisions begin to break down under the weight of the questions their own production asks. The production’s title comes from Cassandra’s prophetic cries, warning the Trojans of the disaster they face. The historical palimpsest — Trojans as Indians — began, according to Valk’s story, in the invention of a practice out of incomprehension. But does this imitation, too, produce an original? Troy might emerge here, like some tragic Atlantis, as the produced original of later genocide. Something in the mimetic circuit breaks down, however. The Wooster Group’s stance around race has always seemed savvy, but only up to a point: their performances mess with the stereotypes and other technologized clichés that contribute to America’s racial logics. But after that point of savvinesss something often goes awry: having performed the ways inauthentic representations can nevertheless become effective, and damaging, they haven’t been able to devise a theatrical response to the real force of these constructs.
The Wooster Group’s “native Americans” are native to the Hollywood screen: a game of representations. Affectless naïvete doesn’t justify the pretense, however, that the company can continue to act as though — to perform as though — it does not know that these inauthentic representations have force in producing real conditions. There is no dismissing the eloquent outrage that has accompanied Cry Trojans! from London to Los Angeles, and which will doubtless continue should the production travel further. (For now, Los Angeles appears to be a last gasp, or dead end.) What links the historical force of Shakespeare’s representation of Troy’s indigenous people to Hollywood’s “native Americans”? Another iteration is imaginable, a revised production which acknowledges that genocide, too, is now in part a matter of mediation while also speaking to — and, more importantly, with — native Americans for whom these representations are not digital or in the past.