Behind Front Lines: Opening Night at the Wooster Group’s ‘Vieux Carre’

Posted by Nick Curley

At the Baryshnikov Art Center, Tennessee Williams’ bourbon-breathed, autobiographical Vieux Carre has been welded onto the technocrat-gone-Francis Bacon aesthetic of enfants terribles the Wooster Group, now running until March 13th.  On paper, stringing Williams up on flatscreens and Macbooks with digital video interrupts amid heaps of wires and widgets sounds wrong. 

Yet slowly, almost innocuously, the Wooster gang begins to seamlessly blend Williams’ steamy prose with their mucky, white noised bells and whistles.  The setting is a New Orleans boarding house, yet we are surrounded by a perpetual dampening ambient rain.  Our protagonist is a stand-in for young Tennessee who finds his (homo) sexual awakening amidst a pack of strays that cough blood from consumption, force hand jobs on each other, and eventually become so verbosely drunk and damaged that they seem to have become pawns of “the Writer’s” imagination.  The emotional candor of the performances onstage override all else.

There is a running joke throughout in which the landlord claims to spit in her famous gumbo to give it a unique flavor.  This proves an apt reference point for late-career Williams: he may be spitting in your soup, he may not be.  But the implication of vulgarity and heightened willingness to bring an audience to the edge of discomfort separates work like Vieux Carre from The Glass Menagerie, which could serve as this show’s sunny side early-in-life bookend.

There’s no Brando here to holler and keep us warm, only brandy.  The work of lead Ari Fliakos as our anchor coming undone is outstanding: with a few pelvic sways or tugs of his collar, he embodies both sides of what we know of Williams: that man of Southern hospitality attempting to lead a dignified, authorial life, even in the face of depression, love’s labor lost, and alcoholism.  The range of inflection and gravel in Fliakos’ voice merits high praise.  With less range to their speech patterns but no less elbow grease from bell to bell, Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk deserve attention as a primordial Stanley and Blanche pairing.  Both are cast in dual roles, playing a sickly old painter and the aforementioned landlord respectively in addition to serving as the destructive lovers whose drag-out brawls the Writer begins to script himself.

It is a testament to the skilled performers and to the playful direction of Elizabeth LaCompte that amidst so many impeccably automated machinery, the most captivating prop used all night is the stiff rubber dildo that Shepherd sports as a kind of three-quarter masted meta-boner perpetually poking through the fly of his pajamas.  It’s an easy joke, perhaps, but one that rather beautifully conjures up the kind of sight gag that would amuse Carre era Williams.  He who would linguistically tiptoe out of the closet only in his senior years, undone by vices, yet maintaining a kind of grandeur that represses self-pity.  In the Wooster’s assuredly avant-garde hands, this underrated career coda from Williams enters our new century not just as a memory play, but as a triumphant, uniquely modern echo chamber.