"We're trying to channel the spirit of a man a lot of people aren't familiar with," explains Ari Fliakos of the Wooster Group. Their play "A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique)" will have its world premiere at the Bard SummerScape Festival on July 13.
Fliakos is referring to Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), an Polish avant-garde artist, set designer, writer, and director. His theatrical company, Cricot 2, was centered in Krakow. Cricot's most notable piece, "The Dead Class," which includes both living actors and mannequins in a shabby classroom, has been performed over 1,500 times, and was named the world's best play by Newsweek magazine in 1976. Living through two world wars and the Holocaust (much of which took place on Polish soil), Kantor became a student of death. He wrote The Theatre of Death—A Manifesto in 1975.
In particular, the Wooster Group focuses on Kantor's play "I Shall Never Return" (1989), fragments of which will be shown on a large screen at center stage. Produced the year before Kantor died, it features the playwright himself lodging at a spooky inn, where he encounters characters from his previous works and bids them farewell. "We're most interested in 'I Shall Never Return' because it has to do with coming back, or coming home," reveals Fliakos. "And there's a sense of: 'Are we bringing Kantor back? Can we make him return?'"
The theater group is collaborating with Kantor's daughter Dorota Krakowska, who lives in Poland. "A Pink Chair" includes video interviews with Krakowska called "Sugar High Episodes," in which she and Wooster Group actors drink tequila, eat sweets, and discuss Kantor's work. (These may be seen on the Wooster Group Facebook page.) On one level, "A Pink Chair" is a documentary, combining video and live actors. But it's more than that.
Theater takes place in the present tense. Once a theater troupe is disbanded, very little remains—just a few videos, which often look stilted and unconvincing—because the magic of live performance perishes in a digital medium. Someday the Wooster Group, too, will dissolve. In "A Pink Chair," the renowned theater company performs an elegy to itself.
The play's title derives from an essay by Kantor about theater entitled "A Kitchen Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique)." This production changes "Kitchen Chair" to "Pink Chair" in honor of a particular prop they have used since the 1970s. Several of Kantor's songs will be in the piece, including one in Polish. Coincidentally, "A Pink Chair" will use Chopin music—a lullaby adapted from one of his scherzos. (Chopin is the featured composer this summer at the Bard Music Festival.)
In the early `80s, I saw Spalding Gray perform two of his first monologues at the Wooster Group's theater, the Performing Garage. Gray had been a member of the company since 1969. Its other most famous alum is Willem Dafoe, who moved from experimental theater to the role of the Green Goblin in Spiderman 2. Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte has received a MacArthur Fellowship—the so-called "genius grant"—plus a National Endowment for the Arts' Lifetime Achievement Award.
The troupe is still in its original home, on Wooster Street in Soho. They work slowly and collaboratively, feeling their way toward a structure of their theatrical pieces. "After however many months or years we work on it, we're creating a world that we end up inhabiting, that you are lifted into as a performer—and it's incredibly freeing," says Fliakos.
The Wooster Group's "A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique)" will be performed at Bard's Fisher Center from July 13 to July 23. (845) 758-7900; Fishercenter.bard.edu.