Eugene O'Neill's Early Plays is a late-career experiment for the Wooster Group. They typically perform theatrical cold fusion on a classic text, bombarding it with bravura physicality and technological design to unleash the energy at the work's core. When applied to O'Neill's The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones, the results were revelatory. This time around, most of the experimentation is with their own method.
The company's 67-year-old leader Elizabeth LeCompte started workshopping O'Neill's early seafaring tales, then handed the director's reins to Richard Maxwell, a master of effective affectlessness. As opposed to the Wooster's usual clutter, irony, and immense energy, he usually forgoes all but a modicum of design or even actor intentions and intonations. Though the two directors may come at a text from opposite directions, their productions share a rigorous control over every stage inch and every production moment to evoke an essence. This is certainly true of this first-time collaboration.
The set exhibits the common ground between the two aesthetics: it's primarily LeCompte and Jim Clayburgh's scenic design from the other Wooster productions of O'Neill minus the microphones and video screens. Stripped to its basics, it's evocative and beautiful. A few rods and pulleys, some metal planks and fog are all that's necessary to conjure a floating world.
The middle and best playlet, Bound East for Cardiff, cuts to the quick of O'Neill and the companies' aesthetics. Featuring New York City Players' Brian Mendes and the Wooster Group's Ari Fliakos, the tale of a dying shipman and the mate who does his best to ferry him home is unsentimental and devastating. The prodigiously talented Fliakos has a resonant voice that almost seems actor-y when placed beside Mendes, who merely says his lines, simple and pure. An achingly tenuous connection is forged between two characters and two performance styles that nonetheless remain inherently separate.