The creative artists at the Wooster Group are theater’s goth-industrial tricksters. For 30 years, they’ve brought a dark techno sensibility to the stage with rave-like originals spun off Chekhov, Miller and O’Neill. It’s highbrow, mosh-pit theater—physical, funny, violent, heady and set to a sound track of ferocious proportions. You may barely get out of a Wooster Group show alive, but you will never be bored.
Historically, the company’s male players dominated productions. The quiet, looming masculinity of the late Ron Vawter, the talky guy-ness of the late Spalding Gray and the high-strung machismo of Willem Dafoe brought whopping male energy to a stage already awash in technological and linguistic yang. A Wooster Group performance, however brilliant, could leave you yearning for yin.
It is a pleasure, therefore, that they’ve revived their phenomenal 1999 “House/Lights” because, in this play, women rule. “House/Lights” is a radical retelling of Faust. The conjurer who sells his soul to the devil for absolute knowledge personifies the tensions between society and the individual, tradition and innovation, nature and technology. By the lights of Faust, to be human is to desire knowledge and power. As opposed to the dog in “House/Lights” (played by Ari Fliakos), whose singular expression is the reactive, poignant “thank-you,” humans think, act and choose This is free will. But free will is corrupting. It is also male. In Goethe, even that archetype of feminine willfulness, Helen of Troy, is reduced to Faust’s concubine.
In “House/Lights,” the Faustian gender dynamic is subverted. Mashing up Gertrude Stein’s libretto, “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights,” with Joseph Mawra’s 1964 s/m lesbloitation flick, “Olga’s House of Shame,” “House/ Lights” retells Faust with lesbian, gender-bending women as the protagonist and antagonist. The glamorous Karen Valk, on a rolling chair behind a clutch of audio-visual equipment is Dr. Faustus. Mephistopheles, the devil, is played by the youngest of the singing sisters The Roches, Suzzy Roche, in expressionist make-up, teased-out hair, horns, perked-up nipples, fuck-me boots and a riding crop, her tail taped to her leg like a dildo in a thigh harness. Other women (Helen Pickett and Sheena See) have supporting parts, including the traditionally male techno-geek role played by Tanya Selvaratnam who manipulates a Macintosh onstage, emitting blips, quacks and vocals.
The male actors (Roy Faudree and Ari Fliakos) are reduced to playing a boy, a dog and sidekicks to a lesbian gangster. In an uproarious, booming, stylized manner, “House/Lights” gives dykes their dirty due. If man is human and can therefore be corrupted, so can woman; so can dykes.
The script overlays Faust with the story of Olga, the sadistic butch boss of a band of female jewel thieves, and her nemesis-turned-protégé, Elaine. Roche plays Olga, and Valk plays Elaine. Roche, blasé on a couch, and Valk, with her dress split at the bosom, mimic the belly-dance scene from the Mawra film that screens on monitors surrounding them. Following the film’s heavy male voice-over, Roche ties Tanya Selvaratnam to a horse lead and “disciplines” her like a “filly.” She feels up women, drawling lines like “I’ll call you later... and we’ll play.” She turns Valk upside down and chomps on her thigh. Valk, as Elaine, gets to act like a “little god” and electrocute one of Olga’s lady enemies. All the while, Stein’s fateful “Faustus” is unfolding, with Valk reciting the sing-songy lines through a mic that gives her a high squeak, her actual voice audible behind it in a lower register, like the voice of the devil him/herself.
It sounds frightening, and on one level, it is. Stein’s script might read like baby talk, but it’s serious about the troubled relationship between nature, humanity and technology. Faustus sells his soul to the devil for the know-how “to make it bright with electric light.” He sacrifices what is natural in himself and his world for technology. The dog, in his only soliloquy, says, “I used to bay at the moon I always used to do it and now not any more, I cannot, of course I cannot, the electric lights they make it be that there is no night ”
Once Faustus acquires power over nature, he says “now no one, not I, not she, not they, not he are interested in that thing and I would, oh yes, I would, I would rather go to hell.” He recognizes the absurdity of his situation: “ oh no thought is not bought I think I have thought and what have I bought I have bought thought ” In exercising his free will, Faustus has commodified knowledge and enslaved himself and nature to technology.
Still, there’s a bad girl sensibility to “House/Lights” that disallows the devil a triumph. As the vamping, teasing s/he protagonist, Valk toys with Olga; s/he toys with Olga’s male sidekick Nick in a hilariously fake sex scene; s/he toys with Stein’s venomous viper, a stand-in for the devil and, here, a representative of technology who is reduced to a rubber snake head shoved onto a microphone. Valk even toys with the devil, kicking Roche in the ass. Roche isn’t scary. She’s deadpan, singing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as we’ve never heard Suzzy Roche sing before—monotone and out of key.
Jim Findlay’s genius set accentuates technology’s dark power and illuminates its limitations. The Wooster Group’s signature video and sound effects are in full force. Multiple monitors display manipulated images. The MacinTalk and the music perpetrate a sonic assault. St. Anne’s black box is left bare to darken the proceedings. Heavy, metal booms rise and fall. Coffee tables spill back and forth on tilting gang planks. The actors careen, dance and pose in a black, metallic sea of technology. But the set’s most beautiful element reminds us that, without human input, technology is inert. A row of enormous, incandescent bulbs swings in unison downstage, gorgeous yet antiquated. They represent Faust’s corrupt power, attached to an old technology and the anachronistic idea of that technology’s dominion over us.
I have to disagree with The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, quoted in the play’s press release, saying, “It raises terrifying thoughts about the deeply mixed blessings of technological progress.” The delivery is too slapstick, the acting too tongue-in-cheek, the supporting material too ludicrous and the play too funny to leave the audience terrified. The gender-bent take on Faust keeps the human and natural elements primary. Valk’s audible voice beneath her techno-squeak is, after all, just human. Selvaratnam, the Mac wizard, is at one point tied to a tree. She is playing one of Olga’s foes, but the binding also symbolizes her inextricable connection to nature, even as she bangs on the keyboard. In the end, the monitors glow with stars, the lights of nature—through the use of technology—asserted over Faustus’ electrical lights. And Valk calls the curtain down with a plea for the recognition of the human element: “Please Mr. Viper listen to me, he is he and she is she and we are we, please Mr. Viper listen to me.”
This is the Wooster Group, after all. This troupe loves technology and has always used it to fantastic effect. The message of “House/Lights” seems to be that technology is powerful, but we control it. If we don’t balance it with natural and human concerns, it can be the vehicle of our demise. In other words, technology doesn’t run amok; humans do.