Theater group makes magic at the Public

NEW YORK — Regardless of where it played, the Wooster Group’s “Hamlet” would be significant. At the Public Theater, it’s especially so.

Though known for dismantling classics, the downtown theater stalwarts and critics’ darlings have never tackled the Bard, and their production — which places live actors before the 1964 film of Richard Burton’s “Hamlet” — promises a fresh spin on their avant-garde, mixed-media technique.

But when it opens Oct. 31, the show will be more than the latest radical rethink by a group known for its audaciousness and invention. It will also be the troupe’s first collaboration with the Public, representing the renewal of the Gotham org’s longstanding commitment to experimental theater.

“Working with the Wooster Group is part of a larger agenda I have,” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public. “When the Public is firing on all cylinders, it serves as the mother ship for the downtown theater scene.”

In other words, by featuring “Hamlet” in the same season as shows like new playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s lyrical drama “The Brothers Size” and vet scribe Richard Nelson’s historical meditation “Conversations in Tusculum,” the Public can cover a wide spectrum of Off Broadway styles and audiences.

Eustis says that mixture is crucial. “It’s an anti-ghettoization impulse,” he explains. “All these people are really part of the same community. If you get everybody in their niches and ghettos, it can be dangerous for the theater.”

His attitude reflects the Public’s long history of hosting major avant-garde artists. Founding a.d. Joseph Papp mounted productions from Richard Foreman and Mabou Mines, and Mines founder JoAnne Akalaitis was ultimately named his successor for a brief term in the ’90s. During his tenure from 1993-2004, George C. Wolfe oversaw “Book of the Dead (2nd Avenue),” a multimedia performance piece from Philip Glass protege John Moran, and he programmed early, aggressively abstract plays by Suzan-Lori Parks.

While much-discussed rights issues have delayed the production’s New York arrival, Eustis says he’s anxious to host “Gatz,” Elevator Repair Service’s six-hour riff on “The Great Gatsby.” He adds that he’s in serious talks with Foreman about a new collaboration, and that Akalaitis will soon return to direct an as-yet-unannounced production.

He also hopes the Public will be home to future work from the Wooster Group. “It may be something we co-conceive, or it may be we host another project,” he offers. “Either way, I’m happy.”

Further Wooster Group productions would only burnish the reputation of Eustis’ still-young stewardship, in addition to providing a high-profile New York venue for the company’s work.

Since it emerged in 1975, both Wooster and Elizabeth LeCompte — its co-founder and resident director — have sustained their reputation for making work that is intellectual, innovative and frequently controversial. Arthur Miller, for instance, once ordered the company to close a production called “L.S.D.,” which wildly reinvented scenes from his play “The Crucible.”

The group is also known for launching the careers of Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe. It has been a constant home for much-lauded thesp Kate Valk, who plays both Gertrude and Ophelia in “Hamlet” and who recently made an electrifying lead in blackface in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.”

For all its prestige, though, the Wooster Group has never hit the mainstream. In addition to touring in the U.S. and Europe, the company has spent most of this decade performing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a Brooklyn venue whose seasons are always offbeat and eclectic.

LeCompte says the run of “Hamlet” at the Public, which began previews Oct. 9 and has already announced a two-week extension through Dec. 2 of its limited engagement, has drawn patrons from beyond the troupe’s usual core of twenty- and thirtysomethings. “I think this audience is older by an average of 10 to 15 years — and we’ve even had some teenagers,” she notes.

That expansion could continue in 2009, when the group begins its three-year residency at Mikhail Baryshnikov’s arts center in the 37 Arts complex in Midtown.

In both cases, LeCompte says she’s happy the Wooster Group’s work can reach an increasingly diverse audience, even as the company gets to stay home in New York. “This feels like we’re touring in our own city,” she explains. “We get the best of both worlds.”

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