The strangest things get into the Bible: Genealogy. Erotic verse. The general statutes. Hallucinations. Song lyrics. Letters. Military analysis. News of the day.
Stranger still are the things that are done with them. Somehow, it was decided that these are the recipes, love notes, life stories and explanations that need to stick around. So the words of a large roomful of writers—who might never have consented to their common company—are stitched into a single volume, a one-book library. The broken pavement of its texts becomes a pattern for life, the foundation of law, a sourcebook on ethics, a primer on compassion and—in certain hands—an excuse for genocide.
It's hard not to conclude that curator John Fidel Justice and the members of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern have been working on a bible all their own. Parts of it are visible on stage in their current production, "The Wooster Group's Diary of Anne Frank," at The Shadowbox, the alternative performance/gallery space recently opened on Washington Street in Durham.
In this appropriately strange and nonlinear tribute to the famous, transgressive downtown New York theater group that started in the 1970s, Little Green Pig pays homage by using the deconstructive tools the Woosters used on other scripts here on works by that company's own members. Theatrical stitchery—deliberately rough in places, nearly undetectable elsewhere—repeatedly interlaces the journals of Wooster Group co-founder and autobiographical performance artist Spalding Gray (Jeffrey Detwiler) with the journal entries of Anne Frank (played by various company members), in search of themes common to both.
By itself, that act may well qualify as near-sacrilege in certain camps. But in this devised performance, sections from those texts are placed in an unlikely matrix of other sources. In one section, science writer Mary Roach (Tamara Kissane) holds forth on flatus; elsewhere, Ron Vawter (Tony Perucci), another Wooster Group co-founder, recalls an experience from his military service that was theatrical, religious, profane—and undeniably funny. These cards are shuffled in a deck including the strange affirmations of L. Ron Hubbard and 1920s calisthenics and football guru Walter Camp, along with remembrances by cast and crew members of their own adolescence. In between these scenes are deliberately awkward transitions including movement sequences, vintage cartoon footage and the unique vocal stylings of live shape-note singing, and songs by Peter Sellers and Screaming Jay Hawkins.
Throughout the show, the focus stays on puberty and pain. Gray's accounts of early clueless interactions with the opposite sex—make that sex, period—is rewardingly punctuated by horror music from a desktop phonograph. Meanwhile, Frank's diary accounts of awkward grapplings with her attraction to girls and boys lead to a satirical video sequence and various interpretations, earnest at times, comic at others.
It's a strange splicing, to be sure. In his monologues, Gray is looking back with an adult's eyes at his adolescence; Frank has no forward knowledge of what's to come.
We must note that this production takes major risks in its treatments of such a figure of the Holocaust, bordering on the flippant in some moments while stripping her words of all subtext in others. Still, the goal of these gambles is to locate the human girl, beneath the layers of iconography.
Sometimes, these gambits pay off. At other times, it's unclear what findings result from deadpan readings and intellectual distance on the various speakers' emotions. Playing actor Peyton Smith, Victoria Facelli delivers a semi-cryptic list of adolescent memories that walks a more intriguing line between disclosure and opacity than other sections in this vein.
With two of its founders (Gray and Vawter) dead and the others aging, the Wooster Group is clearly in a transitional period. There's a growing impetus to document and collect the surviving stories and artworks they've made.
Having studied Gray's monologues for years, I have to confess I still find it strange to hear anyone else's voice tell his stories. And though the members of the early Wooster Group, including Willem Dafoe (John Jimerson), Elizabeth LeCompte (Kissane) and Kate Valk (Dana Marks), had interpersonal intrigues that could fuel a soap opera, some of Gray's journal adaptations placed in Jim Haverkamp's fictional video soap, "Damocles Falls," simply seem bizarre.
Still, if others aren't allowed to tell the stories of Spalding Gray and Anne Frank, they're a lot less likely to survive. Each generation has to find what resonates—and what earlier readers missed. An examination as rigorous as the one we see here ultimately helps us assess how such texts speak to other texts, and speak to us as well. For a fake adaptation of a show that never happened, this Diary still has more than enough truth in it to serve that purpose.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Life underground."