Certain performances linger in our minds not because they confirm what we know about the theater but because they explode it. The performance company the Wooster Group, which for 40 years has been remixing cultural products ranging from “Death of a Salesman” to B horror movies, has sometimes been accused of ironic detachment. But the physical and emotional dexterity of its actors consistently makes a thrill of its deconstructive meditations.
Even so, in the current ensemble, Ari Fliakos strikes me as special. He distinguishes himself from the other two most prominent performers, Kate Valk and Scott Shepherd, as in “Peter Pan” Michael Darling differs from Wendy and John. Shepherd keeps a Brechtian aloofness from his roles, while Valk’s charm and ferocity (her two favorite modes) remain tinged with professionalism. Fliakos is not naturally self-conscious, and so, as a boy jumping for candy, his performative flights appear more fun than whatever else is happening onstage. Watching him is like watching a chess master who, in a somber gaming room, can’t stop himself from grinning.
Fliakos taught me how—and why—to watch theater that is unfamiliar, confusing, or otherwise imposingly new. I knew nothing about the Wooster Group, or any “avant-garde” theater for that matter, when I was dragged to New York by my MFA classmates to see “Poor Theater: A Series of Simulacra.” Since all the cool kids seemed excited about the show, I kept mum how much I’d rather have seen a Broadway musical.
I quickly learned that “Poor Theater,” like most Wooster Group productions, was a study in anti-spectacle, with performers moving around the stage and interacting with video screens as casually as cameramen inhabit a film set. We were told that the company had visited Poland to learn from the students of a late theatrical guru (Jerzy Grotowksi, a name that meant nothing to me), and the actors had asked a translator to sit with them as they watched a film of the guru’s work.
Fliakos played the awkwardly earnest translator in a re-creation of the scene. His eyes grew quietly desperate, his face serious and flush, as his character tried to explain the depth of meaning behind each line of the play to his cynical American companions. It was a gently comic sequence that mirrored my own assumption that “avant-garde” was synonymous with earnest boredom. But “Poor Theater” was designed to be a direct confrontation with that disenchantment, and Fliakos’ refusal of irony would prove the medium for a new thought: Why does theater have to “deliver” anything—spectacle, story, lessons, dividends—other than its commitment to itself?
What came next was what I remember most: Fliakos on his feet, face red, delivering lightning-fast Polish and shifting his body from one electric pose to another. The scene with the translator had disappeared, and now he, Valk, and Shepherd were “rehearsing” the last 20 minutes of the film. But Fliakos seemed to stand alone and surrounded by an aura. He was lost to an ecstasy no one could share and therefore as captivating as an animal on the hunt. It took me a few moments to realize he was not inhabited by the thrill of a character or a dramatic action—rather, he was mimicking, gesture by contorted gesture, the actor from the film, ––which was still playing on the screen beside him.
The moment was as meaningful to me as the day young Kandinsky, one of history’s greatest abstract painters, found himself captivated by a Monet painting not despite but because he couldn’t recognize its subject (haystacks, as the story goes). It was a revelation for him to find pleasure solely in the painter’s medium—color, especially, but also line, arrangement, shade. So, too, Fliakos taught me to recognize the theater’s medium—a body in committed, motivated action, giving more of itself than is necessary for the scene to come off. In an era high on resigned frustration, Fliakos’ gift is that of every great actor—the commitment to joyfully fly.
Jason Fitzgerald is a dramaturg and theater critic in New York City and is working toward his Ph.D. in theater at Columbia University.