TECHNIQUE / Wooster collage: The Wooster Group's latest show uses Chekhov, close-ups and chaos. Sabine Durrant reports

Click to follow
When the Wooster Group rehearsed at the Tramway earlier this week, you could measure the spectators' approval by their sensitivity to the cold. A woman from administration, chewing on an apple, kept shivering and pulling her jacket more tightly around her - 'This,' she murmured with some bafflement, 'is not the Three Sisters I know and love.' A Glasgow student, researching a dissertation on the company, popped chocolate Vice Versas distractedly and took her mock-fur on and off - 'That's Peyton Smith, who plays Olga, over there. With the hair . . . That's Paul Schmidt who translated it. Just as Chekhov would have intended . . . Oh yes, and Willem and Elizabeth have been together for years . . .' Then Neil Wallace, programme director of the Tramway, came in and perched on a seat in a light summer silk suit. 'It looks wonderful. It looks wonderful,' he mouthed to the designer Jim Clayburgh, who nodded back absently, as if he'd just commented on the weather.

The Wooster Group is used to shrugging off strong emotions. Since it was founded in 1975 by Elizabeth LeCompte (who still directs) and Spalding Gray (who tends to wander off on his own these days), this experimental theatre ensemble out of 33 Wooster Street, New York, has always attracted suspicion from other actors - wary of the dexterity with which they protect their 'group' persona: individual biographies are never issued and their tame movie-star, Willem Dafoe, is kept determinedly out of the spotlight. Audiences, meanwhile, swing between extremes. Their multi-media productions, roller-coaster rides of strange sets and video screens, distorted music, odd dance and overlapping action, are met by both rave reviews and raving misunderstandings - Route 1&9 was hit by accusations of racism (which led to the withdrawal of their New York State Arts Council funding) and Arthur Miller, unhappy about their plundering of The Crucible, slapped an indictment on LSD.

What's most shocking about them, though, is that they're still doing it. 'By all the laws of radical art, they just shouldn't exist,' declares Wallace, 'Contemporary art is an evanescent medium, inherently displaced by other innovators. But the Wooster Group holds on to that capacity to astonish and upset.'

Glasgow audiences had better hold on to their hats, then, because they're at the Tramway this week with their latest show, Brace Up] It's based on Paul Schmidt's new 'American-English' translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters - but only loosely. Much of the story takes place at the back of the stage or slightly out of sight or on one of the three video sceens in close-up (which LeCompte said is the 'biggest innovation in the arts in 100 years'). The actors speak into microphones, often deadpan, and avoid each other's eyes; there's a stage-manager figure who bosses the characters about or hurries along the story. There is dance; there are loud recorded noises (wind howling, baby screeching, an old woman nagging). There is structure, but it battles with an overpowering sense of chaos.

It was even more confusing in rehearsal. For one thing, there was all the equipment to sort out. Discussions of artistic niceties were constantly interrupted by technical necessities. The hum of a heater, wheeled in to thaw freezing actors in short pants at the rear of the stage, deafened Dafoe to his cues. Another unidentified noise put people off their stride in the fast dance ('It's the music', 'No I think it's the wind', 'The speaker's breaking up'). It turns out to be the background noise on the video tape, which hasn't been heard this amplified before. Later, LeCompte was berating one of the performers on his delivery - 'It's not about speed; it's about intent,' - when a bulb popped. 'Clay - we seem to have lost current to this light . . .' called the 'stage-manager', Kate Valk. A Glasgow technician leapt energetically on to the stage and promptly electrocuted himself. He was standing there, rubbing his hands and looking a little disorientated, but LeCompte was on to something else - 'Careful about the volume, guys,' she was calling in the opposite direction, 'Remember, overlap it - throw it away.'

The company has been working on this piece, off and on, for three and a half years (the student with the dissertation has ploughed through 144 hours of video- taped rehearsal), but things are still changing. On Tuesday morning, they decided to introduce a new character - 'the second officer' - and on Tuesday afternoon they were busy swapping lines around, and officially incorporating mistakes ('Who was mumbling near the mike in the waltz scene? (Muttered guilty admission) It was great. Leave it in').

LeCompte works by a combination of toughness and laxity; at times she lets the actors know what she wants, at others she gives them their head. On the waltz: 'The problem with this for me, guys, to be honest with you, is it really needs the canon structure, which means extra rehearsal.' On Dafoe's song: 'You know what? I don't know about that. You're gonna have to fool around.'

The dynamic between LeCompte and Dafoe (who are married - their child, Jack, appears at one point on the television screen) is tangible. In the past Dafoe's movie success has led to tension in the group. One of the Tramway team remembers that when the company came over in 1990, 'there were lots of phone calls, with people asking 'What hotel is so-and-so staying in?' '. There's no bickering this time ('we don't snap, we giggle,' said Schmidt), but Dafoe certainly takes criticism with less grace than the others. At one point he bounded into the auditorium to take issue with the director. When she shouted 'Careful, Willy,' he snapped crossly 'Careful about what?' and when she called out 'Remember to mock the Baron,' he stopped what he was doing and glared at her: 'You were looking the one second when I wasn't. Where were you looking the rest of the time?'

Even this seemed to be taken in good spirit, though. And even if it wasn't, disharmony is a vital part of LeCompte's work - it is, after all, the 'chaos of our century' she's seeking to pin down. 'I'm always reacting against the unison of action,' she said, 'When disharmony comes into unison and then disperses again, the effect is much more striking.' The student from the University of Glasgow would have agreed with her. 'It's beautiful,' she breathed, as she snuggled into her coat, 'It's magnificent.'

Continues at Glasgow Tramway until 31 October (Booking: 041-227 5511).

(Photograph omitted)