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Expanding the boundaries of modern theater

Postmodern theater has been called the style of "anything goes," but that doesn't mean its collages and montages are thrown together at random. Sharp-witted examples of its expressive power are on view every time The Wooster Group goes on tour or stages a new work at the Performing Garage, its home in lower Manhattan.

This troupe has revolutionized theater for almost 25 years, thanks to director Elizabeth LeCompte and actors like Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray, whose talents ideally suit the company's radical agenda. Like most of its productions, this season's "House/Lights" molds preexisting material into shapes and combinations that open up fresh emotional and intellectual dimensions. The show's chief ingredients are Gertrude Stein's poetic play "Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights," scenes from a 1964 exploitation film, snippets from the movie "Young Frankenstein," choreography by Trisha Brown, and an intricate melange of music and video.

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What does it all mean? Themes of sexual temptation and the social status of women are often detectable in the tapestry. But the focus is less on literal messages than on exploring how our media-rich world reveals and conceals the complex relationships between human nature and the signs and symbols through which it tries to communicate.

Ultimately the show's greatest impact comes from LeCompte's ingenious ways of interweaving those signs and symbols into original and surprising patterns. "House/Lights" ranks below The Wooster Group's triumphs, such as its great trilogies of the 1970s and '80s. But it shows an aesthetically courageous troupe still expanding the boundaries of contemporary theater.

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