TheaterMania Logo

House/Lights logo
Kate Valk and Roy Faudree in House/Lights
Photo © Paula Court
The Wooster Group's House/Lights is a revival of a show that the company has been developing since 1996, conflating two disparate classics: B-movie director Joseph P. Mawra's S&M movie Olga's House of Shame (1964) and Gertrude Stein's opera Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938). The sexploitation flick is actually one of a three-part series of films -- which I have not had the pleasure to watch -- about the titular vixen, who dupes her female captives into becoming White Slaves of Chinatown. In contrast, the Stein opera is based on one of the most enduring legends of Western literature, about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. It's an unlikely marriage, but is it a match made in heaven or hell?

In a sense, both stories deal with the dangers of instant gratification: Stein's Doctor Faustus trades his immortal soul for electric lighting, while Olga presumably must have to pay the price of shame for being such a bad, bad girl. The Wooster Group spins the two tales into a Faustus for our electronic age, in which every pleasure can be satisfied with the click of a mouse. What other theater troupe is better equipped to deal with this subject matter? After all, Wooster has been known to employ cutting-edge multimedia elements in its shows, and this style continues to spawn imitators.

But the audio-electronic aspects of this production drown out the musicality of Gertrude Stein's language. Many people know Stein through her most famous quotation, "A rose is a rose is a rose," but several of her plays, poems, and operas are also written in an idiosyncratic manner with sing-song rhymes and repetitions. For example, the first line of this play -- blurted out by Doctor Faustus -- is, "The devil what the devil do I care if the devil is there." In this produciton, however, the cadences of the exclamation are processed through the circuits of a computer.

That's a particular shame because the voice that's manipulated belongs to Kate Valk, a Wooster Group member who is widely regarded as one of New York's top actresses. Her range and charm are evident here; she's an electrifying performer. If she had been allowed to unleash her natural voice on this text, she would surely have illustrated the quirky rhythms, playful rhymes, and manic construction of the writing beautifully. Instead, a voice that sounds like that of the love child of HAL from 2001 and Betty Boop makes the text grating at times.

Suzzy Roche, with her tiny devil horns, is cleverly double-cast as Mephistopheles and Olga, whose sexual servants may well feel as though they have entered into a Faustian bargain. A middle-aged gentleman named Roy Faudree offers a funny portrayal of a wide-eyed little boy, and Ari Fliakos is hilarious as a trusty dog that only knows how to say "Thank you." John Collins has excellent timing as the voice of a viper whose mannerisms are played by the lead actress's hand puppet.

In between certain scenes of House/Lights, videotaped segments from Olga are displayed on monitors facing the audience, and the performers enact them with impressive accuracy in real time. Director Elizabeth LeCompte throws in energetic choreography that demands the audience's attention; she employs footage from Young Frankenstein and I Love Lucy, along with such props as whips and levers. Since this is the Wooster Group, all of the show's design elements are eye-catching: Jennifer Tipton's lights illustrate just what seduced Faustus, Elizabeth Jenyon's costumes are sexy (they open at the bust in the case of the lead actress), and Jim Findlay's set is sleek and angular.

Recently, the Wooster Group's Poor Theater explored the legacy of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, whose minimal style might be described as antithetical to that of the troupe's more lavish productions. Grotowski's goal for theater was to make it literally "poor" by eliminating sets, props, and other expensive production elements; an actor's voice and body, he believed, was all that was needed to create a universe of settings. Although many believe this philosophy to be antiquated, the Wooster Group could have benefited from following it this time around.

Tagged in this Story