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A CurtainUp Review

. . .I thought I
was tempted by the devil and I know no
temptation is tempting unless the devil
tells you so. And you wanted my soul
what the hell did you want my soul for,
how do you know I have a soul, who
says so nobody says so but you the devil
and everybody knows the devil is all lies,
so how do you know how do I know that
I have a soul to sell how do you know
Mr. Devil oh Mr. Devil how can you
tell you can not tell anything and I I who
know everything I keep on having so much
light that light is not bright and what after
all is the use of light. . .
—-Gertrude Stein
Perhaps more than most of us, Gertrude Stein was aware of the various and inter-related uses of the noun, "play". In 1939, she published a play, Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, that was a "play" on the Faust saga. House/Lights, The Wooster Group's newest offering, in turn plays with her Doctor Faustus, "channeling" it through a trashy 60's cult film called Olga's House of Shame. It's a brilliant trumping of Stein's imagination.

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights seems on the surface to trivialize the universality of the epical masterworks of Goethe and Marlowe and yet, on further reflection, comes close to distilling them to their essence. Electric light becomes the devil's surrogate bargaining chip and in it there is a metaphor for everything that is at once fixed and elusive, obligatory and useless. Faustus (Kate Valk) lives with a boy (Ray Faudree) and a talking dog (Ari Fliakos). (The dog's vocabulary includes little more than the words, "thank you".) There is of course Mephistopheles (a horned Suzzy Roche) as well as Mr. Viper (voice of John Collins), portrayed here by a plastic figure attached to a microphone. Viper bites a woman with two names, Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel (more or less portrayed here by Kate Valk), who goes to Doctor Faustus "to get the poison out".

A "straight" viewing of Stein's play is, more often than not and for most, confounding. It's a work that can be fun to listen to but that coalesces, if at all, in its digestion. (It requires, of course, less effort than Goethe's monumental Faust, the creation of the two parts of which consumed six decades, and the understanding of which can be a life's work as well.) It is a tribute to Kate Valk's reading, and Elizabeth LeCompte's conceptual direction, that the unlikely microcosmic vehicle into which the story is channeled fits like a glove. Perhaps by the contrast, Stein's work is ennobled, resonating in ways that often escape it.

Olga's House of Shame apes Faustus in its seeming triviality, but ultimately reveals itself for what it is: an apt if de-glorified demonstration of the Faustian bargain. Stein's devil is charming; LeCompte's overlay makes it clear this is no night at the opera. Olga (also portrayed by Roche) is a jewel-smuggling lesbian dominitrix. When Elaine (also portrayed by Valk -- the parallels should be kicking in by now) is captured after running away from being tortured for double-crossing Olga, the two women make a deal. The rest of the sordid details don't matter much, except in their execution.

Until now, the apex of Wooster Group's signature "treatment" has been in its dissection of Eugene O'Neill's early plays (The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape). Words can be used to make a point, but can also be used merely to make a sound. Voices can be modified -- amplified, echoed, fractured, replicated, accelerated and decelerated. So can images.

The same tools are applied here, but the source material affords them even greater energy. A remarkably engaging Kate Valk sits on a rolling stool, front and center, with microphones, a video monitor and a fixed camera shooting unfixed images in front of her. She propels herself into and out of the action. Other monitors are attached to a giant metal frame that moves up and down. Rolling carts hurl in and out on see-sawing ramps. Somehow, Valk is able to convey the sense of the hysteria surrounding her, milking it for its wit and never losing its tongue-in-cheek passion. There are other excellent performances here (Ari Fliakos's being the most noteworthy), but Valk is magnetic.

Stein's elliptical but elegantly playful text fuses with the banal voice-over that parades itself as exposition in Olga's House. Video laces and unlaces scenes from the film, from the play and from other sources (as varied as Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein and Desi Arnaz in who-knows-what). Action on stage spills over onto video screens, in both high and low relief and sometimes catapulting characters directly into film scenes in progress. The ballet that Stein plopped in the middle of her play begets a water ballet here that seemingly blends with a hoe-down on Olga's ranch.

The senses are never permitted to rest. Elizabeth Jenyon's costumes are designed to reinforce the visual warps with which we are confronted. Sleazed-out women's wear has out-of-kilter bulges about the hips; Prada-supplied men's suits materialized off the screen. Not surprisingly, lights abound, ranging from a focal row of transparent globes that lean and sway, to votives, work lights, fluorescents and blinding spots. Stein's use of these lights was likened to a Greek chorus. The excellent Jennifer Tipton has rendered something more akin to a witches' chorus, I suspect. Sound design and music intricately underpins the show, and hides enough subtle references to require repeated hearings to master.

This is an intriguing, gamboling circus. The sensory orgy may leave Gertrude spinning in her Père Lachaise grave but it leads us to only one fitting conclusion with which she would no doubt have no quarrel: the truth is the biggest lie of all.

by The Wooster Group based on Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights by Gertrude Stein
Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte
with Kate Valk, Suzzy Roche, Roy Faudree, Ari Fliakos, Tanya Selvaratnam, Helen Eve Pickett, Sheena See and John Collins
Set Design: Jim Findlay
Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton
Costume Design: Elizabeth Jenyon
Sound Design: James "J.J." Johnson and John Collins
Video: Philip Bussmann
Music: Hans Peter Kuhn and John Lurie
The Performing Garage, 33 Wooster Street (Broome/Grand) (212) 966-3651
opened January 29, 1999 open run
Seen January 29, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman February 1, 1999
Closing 3/28/99

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