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By ERIC GRODE
Upon his first exposure to Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s six-hour, word-for-word staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis said he left the theatre ''convinced that The Great Gatsby was the greatest American novel ever written.'' It wasn’t until days later, he said, that he remembered to restore Moby Dick to the top spot.
A similar debate led Scott Shepherd to his latest project. The actor starred in Gatz as the narrator and Nick Carroway surrogate, but he's also been a member of the Wooster Group for the last decade. In early 2009, he and Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group's artistic director, had their own discussion about the greatest American art.
''We were going to Hong Kong with [Eugene O’Neill’s] The Emperor Jones,” Shepherd says, “and Liz was writing something about O’Neill for the Hong Kong audience. I wandered into the office that day, and she said, 'What do you think of this?' She had a sentence that said, 'Eugene O’Neill is one of the most famous American playwrights,' and I said, ' ''Famous''? Is that really what you want to say? What about ''one of the greatest American playwrights''?' And she said, 'I don’t know that he is one of the greatest.' And I said, 'Well, then who is?' And she finally said, 'Tennessee Williams.' And that’s how it started.''
After looking at some of his familiar plays, LeCompte settled on the 1977's Vieux Carre, one of Williams’ most sexually and emotionally explicit works. (In contrast to typical seasons, when Streetcars and Glass Menageries run rampant across the New York stage, Williams---who was born 100 years ago this spring---is currently being honored with an array of rarely-staged pieces. His experimental one-act Green Eyes appeared at a Hell’s Kitchen hotel in January, Austin Pendleton just directed a production of Small Craft Warnings, and the Roundabout is chiming in with Olympia Dukakis in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.)
In the Wooster Group’s production, running through March 13 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Shepherd plays two inhabitants of a seedy New Orleans boarding house: Nightingale, a tubercular artist with a physical and spiritual lust for connection, and Tye, an abusive junkie and sometime gigolo who works in a strip club.
Even now, months after Gatz finished its acclaimed run at the Public, Shepherd can still recite The Great Gatsby in its entirety. ''It’s etched in stone,'' he says, tapping his head. Still, he maintains that Vieux Carre, in which he constantly switches between his roles, is just as taxing. ''There are so many costume changes in this, and it turns out that one of the most tiring things you can do is change pants. A costume change doubles in difficulty any time pants are involved.''
As Nightingale glides around the boarding house, Shepherd frequently uses deliberate, open-stance steps familiar from Chinese opera---one of the many stylistic references strewn throughout the production. ''Liz had asked at one point, 'Can we do Tennessee Williams like a Noh play?' The Noh kind of dropped away over time, but when we went to Hong Kong with The Emperor Jones, we saw some Cantonese opera and were really taken with it. We already had the kimonos, so …''
Before he left his Georgia hometown to attend Brown University, Shepherd had very little acting experience. And while he has fond memories of Anne Bogart briefly running Trinity Rep, the Equity company affiliated with Brown, he took more courses in math and science than in theatre. ''I was always kind of on the margins there,'' he says.
That changed once he graduated, moved to New York, and discovered Elevator Repair Service. ''I loved how ERS focused on the kind of performance that is interested in the nature of performance---its conventions, its boundaries, our experiences of it. It was exactly the sort of theatre I was looking for.'' He worked with the group for five years, then joined the Wooster Group more or less full-time in 2000.
While Vieux Carre is running, the company is also working with downtown stalwart Richard Maxwell on what promises to be a freewheeling exploration of Eugene O’Neill’s early ''sea plays.'' From late Williams to early O’Neill the definition of greatness continues to be a tantalizing moving target.
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.