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The Wooster Group and New York City Players make a long overdue Bay Area appearance

The Wooster Group in 'Early Plays'

Not that theatricality per se was absent: three of Maxwell's workmanlike yet stirring ditties, for example, stitch together the O'Neill plays with simple, poignant, uninflected harmonies and rhythms as the actors smoothly reconfigure the stage. During Bound East for Cardiff, moreover, the stage was plunged into semi-darkness, sculpted by the warm glow of a few lantern lamps and the looming, slowly dissipating clouds blasted at intervals from a smoke machine, as main characters Yank and Driscoll (played respectively by NYC Players' Brian Mendes and Wooster veteran Ari Fliakos) conferred at the former's deathbed in a recessed, beautifully haunted corner of the stage. And in The Long Voyage Home, NYC Players stalwart Jim Fletcher (a riveting presence who is perhaps the quintessence of Maxwell's forthright aesthetic, deflating and commanding at once) donned a too-tight barman's vest and a toupee that looked like an animal roosting rump-forward on his head; while beside him Wooster's luminous Kate Valk burst into and out of tears with a kind of blank perfection.

But it was precisely the melding of the clumsy and the graceful — and the volatile tension that arose between the purposely anti-theatrical and the inescapable pull of the plays themselves — that marked the production's dissonant, quasi-Brechtian approach. In eschewing the usual cohesion, the production gave itself over to an admittedly not entirely successful but fascinating pursuit of what is much more rare: a sense of raw immediacy and authenticity, and a poetic capacity for unexpected instants of reflection. It's an approach that wrestled with itself as much as the material or the audience, but it led to a refreshing sense of possibility and inquiry, and in it too there were moments when the lyrical and transcendent were given new life.

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