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To You, The Birdie!
For all of you who've been glued to your TV sets watching the Olympics, take note. There's another athletic game being refereed by that most avante of avante-garde theater companies, The Wooster Group. The game in the spotlight is badminton, a tennis-like game played with a shuttlecock, or birdie, instead of a ball. Those badminton interludes may not cause a new sports category to be added to the next Olympics, but they are an inspired dramatic device for this often amazing and always inventive reinterpretation of Racine's Phèdre. This latest classic to be given the Woosterian brand of technological bells and whistles treatment encompasses such usual distancing effects as TV screens, fractured mirror images, actors whose lines are juxtaposed with other voices and distinctly choreographed movements. It is the season's second smashing and rebuilding of the Greek myth, Charles Mee's True Love, which took on Euripides' as well as Racine's version plus Plato's Symposiumm being the first.
As in previous productions, despite all the departures from tradition, the plot line being razed and rebuilt in the Wooster style remains remarkably intact. Should Racine have a chance to watch the proceedings from the great beyond, he would have no problem recognizing his characters.
Badminton proves to be an apt visual and verbal link to the goddess Venus (a superior performance by Wooster Group regular Suzzy Roche) as the referee of the tragedy. With the rules of the game established by Venus, we meet Hippolytus (Ari Fliakos) and Theramenes (Scott Shepherd) who hilariously alternate their badminton match with a conversation equivalent to boys' talk in the locker room -- to give one example, there's Theramenes' wry "Suppose your mother hadn't overcome her virginal scruples -- where would you be?"
The referee's double entendre "Is the birdie okay?" is echoed by the far from okay Phèdre (Kate Valk). Valk is remarkable as she portrays the queen physically while another voice speaks her lines. (Scott Shepherd as her vocal alter ego is smooth and funny, especially in the periodic confidential asides). There's also meaning to the queen's not speaking for herself since it underscores her helplessness and out of control obsession with clothing and Hippolytos. This lack of control and independence is further emphasized by her having her bodily functions attended to via enema bags and a wheelchair with attached toilet bowl. (This is good a time as any for a caveat that this is not everyone's cup of theater, especially the scatological aspects of the humor which the squeamish might not find amusing).
Frances McDormand, the film actress best known for her Academy Award winning role in Fargo is a fine addition to the company. She plays the Iago-like Oenone with understated intensity. The Wooster Group's other film star, Willem Dafoe, doesn't appear until about the last third of the play but his macho, self-important Theseus is worth waiting for. His deep booming voice and heavy walk perfectly evoke the sense of watching a giant animated statue (or is it a king with a sense of being cast in stone for posterity?). When, at one point he contorts his body into a mountain of muscle, he has you gasping with wonder at how he does it.
The sound effects and original music contribute much the excitement and uniqueness of To You, The Birdie! The fit of Woosterian look and sound with the source material, can be credited to the distinct directorial vision of company's founding member Elizabeth LeCompte.
The Wooster Group's popularity with the young audiences who Broadway producers are constantly trying to woo from other entertainment media, has prompted a move to a larger venue, St. Ann's Warehouse in the D.U.M.B.O. (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Judging from the packed house last Saturday afternoon, the group's reputation will not deter their fans from coming to Brooklyn to fill this spacious new space.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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