Ben Williams on Thu, 4 Feb 1999 22:30:57 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> House/Lights

Nettimers might be interested in this review of the Wooster Group's new show
"House/Lights," currently playing in New York, and it's accompanying CD-ROM
by Zoe Beloff; both deal with the kind of cyborg themes which pop up
frequently on this list. You can find it online, with cool photo, here:

by Ben Williams

"What do I care there is no here nor there," Dr. Faustus (Kate Valk) intones
into his mike at the beginning of the Wooster Group's new production, voice
processed to sound like Betty Boop on helium. It could be the slogan for
this profane parable of multiple identity in the electric age, which finds
its meanings in the crossed wires and sparks of feedback that emerge between
a Gertrude Stein opera libretto and a '60s softcore B&D flick--not to
mention Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," and
Lucille Ball--on a stage rigged for distraction through sound, vision, and
the net.

Mind you, calling "House/Lights" a parable would imply that it has a message
to impart, and this intoxicating blend of pop kitsch and arty abstraction is
too open-ended, too humorous, too nonsensical, and at times too sheerly
sensational to be reduced to anything so humdrum as that. Stein's "Dr.
Faustus Lights the Lights" reads like what might result if she had written a
crossbreed of the Faust and Garden of Eden myths in the plainest of
language, then fed it into a computer programmed to produce variations
according to patterns derived from nursery rhymes and folk songs. Its lack
of stage directions or even indications as to who is speaking mean it
virtually requires reinterpretation, and its obliqueness preempts the kind
of heavy-handed moralism which marred La Fura Del Baus' execrable update
("Faust 3.0") at Lincoln Center last summer.

By alternating scenes from "Olga's House of Shame"--a cult film cited by
John Waters as his greatest influence--with Stein's idiosyncratic mix of the
childish and the profound, the Wooster Group makes the Faust/Eden myth into
chase story, psychosexual drama, and Freudian comedy by turns. The
counterbalanced texts mean that, although "House/Lights" inspires a
multitude of thoughts on the interconnections between such weighty topics as
sex, power, and technology, they occur not in the form of an argument, but
as evanescent inspirations which spring semi-formed to mind whenever a
particularly suggestive complex of image, word and movement impacts the eyes
and ears.

In other words, there is a lot going on onstage, which could be an
intelligent house straight out of Bill Gates' fantasies in itself, such is
the precision with which its various special effects are operated. Front and
center is Valk's Faustus/Elaine (the latter being the part she plays in
"House of Shame"), her voice miked at all times, her image often projected
onto a TV screen directly in front of her, equally often blended with the
movie footage that it and four others display. Tanya Selvaratnam sits to
Valk's right with a laptop for most of the show, punctuating the almost
musique concrete soundtrack with amusing bleeps and bloops, prompting us to
wonder whether the whole thing is some new, particularly esoteric porn site
she's found on the web.

Metal bars hung with giant lightblubs move up and down above the cast;
see-saw iron runways slide wooden tables back and forth behind during
hilariously kitschy reenactments of scenes from "Olga's House of Shame."
There's a program note lifted from Stein about the permanent discrepancy
between a play in progress and the audience's experience of it, a thought
we're reminded of most immediately during the "Olga" sequences, which play
on the screens while the cast mimics them with impressive (these folks can
do trees, and horses too) but always slightly (deliberately?) off timing.
We're neither here nor there throughout, caught betwixt and between texts
and technology--whose multiple perspectives, "House/Lights" suggests,
provide historical context and perhaps even causality for Stein's insight.

Then there are the costumes, whose ungainly styrofoam bumps around the hips
and buttocks (reminiscent of Rei Kawakubo's notorious designs for Commes des
Garcons a few seasons ago, though credited to Prada) turn Valk and the
wicked Suzzy Roche (who plays Mephistopheles/Olga) into robobabes--a
metaphor that's literalized when Elaine makes out with the evil Nick (Roy
Faudree), and their miked bodies, rubbed together, produce real static.

Such are the connections made between "Olga's House of Shame" and "Dr.
Faustus Lights the Lights": not always immediately, but usually
subconsciously, apparent. The evening's most amusing sequence involves
Valk's conversation with the viper (who pops up in Stein from Eden to bite
Faust's Marguerite Ida, who may also be Helena Annabel; at any rate, both
females are played by Valk, their doubleness illustrated cleverly by camera
trickery), who has taken the form of a small rubber serpent's mouth stuck on
the end of her microphone, which she cradles suggestively. They run through
some doctor/patient schtick, and by this point you've been well primed to
pick up on the intertwined symbolism of sexuality, power, and prosthesis at

Such liberties make Stein's libretto more entertaining than you'd believe
was possible. On the page, it's a thick swamp of repetition; as read by the
brilliant Valk, it gains wit, life, and most importantly rhythm. The single
line, "A very grand ballet of lights," pops up, mysteriously, toward the
end; in the Wooster Group's hands, it becomes the cue for a gorgeous
extended dance scene, accompanied by images of '50s musical ensemble bathing
beauties, and bubbles blown onstage to boot. Such are the giddy pleasures
that communicate metaphysics here; "House/Lights" is less likely to have you
worrying about the electrical redefinition of the human than it is to leave
you revelling in the possibilities it unleashes.

Many of these themes, with a few additions, are reconfigured once more in
Zoe Beloff's accompanying CD-ROM "Where Where There There Where," which
exists as a kind of parallel work, related to "House/Lights" yet not
dependent upon it. There are essentially two styles on display here: black
and white Quicktime movies which play like experimental cinema in miniature,
and wraparound environments which can be explored by moving the mouse
around, zooming in and pulling back from the panorama on display.

The movies are far more effective, indeed really quite brilliant, running
for a couple of minutes each and mixing up '30s cartoons, lectures on
Wittgenstein's arguments against Alan Turing's famous test of the ability of
machines to be human, and imagery and dialogue derived from Stein, Faust,
and Eden. The environments consist mostly of chilly, derelict industrial
locations, over which footage of the "House/Lights" actors is imposed in a
ghostly style reminiscent of Gary Hill's video work; though atmospheric,
they are not interactive enough to make the time spent clicking around
worthwhile. More interesting is the textual device running across the top of
the screen, which writes and rewrites Steinian sentences backwards and
forwards, making connections between her language experiments and
information theory, and producing half-nonsense sentences that make an
uncanny sense reminiscent of William Burrough's cut-up texts, or messages
from a Oujia board.

As her notes on the Wooster Group website make clear, Beloff has mostly
ignored the "Olga's House of Shame" side of "House/Lights," and explored
philosophical questions about the possible similarites between computer
processing and language; though her CD-ROM is slightly more didactic than
the Wooster Group's show, it nevertheless extends its themes in a number of
fascinating and completely appropriate directions. Beloff, for instance,
cleverly uses the Dog from "Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights" to bring in
Pavlov's famous theories on the human mind as electrical machine susceptible
to rational control, and their relation to the binary circuits of digital
technology; "Gravity's Rainbow" fans will thus not be surprised to hear that
Pynchon makes a brief appearance too.

Wooster Group website:
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