It's an unseasonably warm February afternoon in lower Manhattan, but at the Wooster Group's SoHo offices, the atmosphere smacks of downtown cool. For nearly 30 years, the company has been New York's reigning avant-garde theatre collective, so the troupe could, if anything, be forgiven an unusual level of excitement for being discovered all over again this particular day.
That morning, in a town where careers can be made or broken overnight, the company's latest show, To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre), received a flat-out rave in The New York Times: "Exhilarating ... dazzling ... inspired," trilled Ben Brantley, the paper's chief drama critic. (By contrast with his much-feared predecessor, Frank Rich, Brantley is a Wooster enthusiast.) But although those behind the mixed-media deconstruction of Racine, arriving at London's Riverside Studios next month for a two-week run, would certainly prefer to be liked as opposed to lynched, their work is self-sufficient. "The problem with being reviewed," says Elizabeth LeCompte, director of To You, the Birdie! as well as the artistic director of the Wooster Group as a whole, "is that it changes your impulses if you do the show with that end in mind."
A drolly laconic Willem Dafoe, LeCompte's longstanding partner (together for 24 years, the two have a son Jack, 19, who is studying at Yale) chimes in: "Now, with the review, [the show] has got that seal of approval. Audiences are going to be so happy that they got a ticket to the thing that The New York Times enjoyed." And the fact that Dafoe, whose life as an Oscar-nominated film star (for Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire) feeds his commitment to the group, makes a gloriously narcissistic Theseus won't hurt box office one bit. The world may soon know the actor as Spiderman's Green Goblin, but the Wooster Group is home – literally: he and LeCompte live in a loft across the street from the Performing Garage.
For a long time, the company went its own way independently of the American press, fashioning productions over a lengthy incubation period at the Performing Garage and then showing them in an 80-seat venue that, through word of mouth accompanied by an ever-burgeoning reputation, was virtually always sold out. It was in that auditorium that Swimming To Cambodia's Spalding Gray, LeCompte's ex, began refining his singular, deadpan skills, and where, in 1984, the troupe enflamed Arthur Miller by incorporating amplified fragments of The Crucible into a piece provocatively called LSD (... Just the High Points ...). Claiming that his work had been "mangled," the playwright issued a now notorious writ that led to the substitution of other material.
On other occasions Flaubert and Thornton Wilder have sparked work that puts source texts through a Magimix of video, sound effects, and a battery of technological wonders. The visual and aural leitmotif of To You, the Birdie!, to dizzying effect, is badminton, hence the title. Also in the inspirational mix in recent years have been Chekhov and – in two wildly varied stagings – Eugene O'Neill, including a 1997 version of the author's rarely seen Expressionist curiosity, The Hairy Ape, featuring Dafoe in blackface. (In 1998, Wooster Group veteran Kate Valk, a white woman, played the title role of a black, male, railroad porter in a rare reclamation of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.) But if Wooster members have tended to baulk at reviews, at least on home turf, that comes from a sense that their shows are never really finished. "A review implies that this is what you have been working towards," explains LeCompte, a soft-spoken 58-year-old who does the bulk of the talking while Dafoe, 12 years her junior, looks on, providing an occasional soundbite. "But for developing work, it's not very useful. It's fine in Europe, where we are seen briefly and then go away."
Europe, in turn, has been generous to the Wooster Group, with To You, the Birdie! marking the company's third visit to the English capital that Dafoe, for one, knows from other assignments, not least while filming his role as the clotted Tom Eliot opposite Miranda Richardson's Vivienne Haigh-Wood in the 1994 film, Tom and Viv. Meanwhile, this latest show should have a resonance in London unavailable to it in New York, where Racine is barely known: in Britain, by contrast, Phèdras are almost commonplace. London alone has played host in that role to Glenda Jackson, Diana Rigg, and, most recently Sheila Gish. Audiences in the capital may be particularly alive to the madcap energy and passion of Paul Schmidt's translation, which the Group broadcast in a slightly different version on Radio 3 several years ago.
The production's astonishingly febrile Phèdre, Kate Valk, says: "Liz doesn't choose the texts because she's interested in the ideas or themes – if I can act as spokesperson. It's that she has a vision of the play in a flash and just has to do it." That explains the vibrant immediacy of an aesthetic that feels not like an archivist's response to a centuries old script but like an immediate play for today. "I don't have a big dramaturgical thing about how the play should be done," says LeCompte, who, perhaps bravely, in December toured To You, the Birdie! to Paris, to general acclaim. Racine's Neoclassical drama, LeCompte says, "is present for me as if it were written now". A fifth act containing eerie echoes of 11 September – that part of the production was indeed rehearsed after the traumatic date – is uncannily pertinent.
In light of the company's cachet abroad (other company homes-from-home have included Glasgow, Vienna, and Frankfurt), it's tempting to imagine the Wooster Group decamping to Europe, much as Mark Morris, William Forsythe and other celebrated American talents have done at different times. Not at all, says LeCompte: "The less American we were, the less Europe would like us." And with that, Valk is off to get her kneepads, followed by Dafoe in time for an intensive badminton brush-up.
Visionary theatre, and racket sports, too? LeCompte laughs. "Sometimes, I just think we should do away with the show and open a badminton school."
'To You, the Birdie!': Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London W6 (020 8237 1111), Thursday to 23 May
Matt Wolf is London theatre critic for 'Variety'Reuse content