Word Domination

For all my complaints, Dido, Queen of Carthage is a good deal more pleasurable than many such contemporary evenings. Zinn's set and Kaye Voyce's ingenious costumes give it a lavish look, most of the play is audible, and the company gives off a friendly aura. Even the staging, with its constant irritants and cutenesses, at least always shows a desire to convey the dramatic action. What sinks the whole thing, I suspect, is a desire to go for results instead of arriving at them, to make a comment on Marlowe without having tested the material Marlowe offers. One thing Herskovits never does is carry out an action indicated by the text: Dido says she'll give Cupid her fan, but then doesn't. Is this meant to rebuke our expectations, to comment on Dido's character, or just to show how modern the style is? I actually don't care if she gives him the fan or not (it's not a vital dramatic point), nor do I particularly want to know Herskovits's reason for having her not do it. What I want—and I want it from every form of theater, in every style—is the ability to trust his reason. And I can't give that; the theater has to earn it. Which is what Dr. Johnson really meant by the second line of that famous couplet.


Richard Foreman must know what I mean. The elaborate set of staging conventions he's built up, over the years, for his own plays can leave its mark on scripts by others without blocking their sense. But he seems happiest, as am I, when the conventions meet the other half of the mind from which they grew. Communism, as we'll short-title his new work, is literally such a meeting: The characters are Fred (Jay Smith) and Freddie (Tony Torn), a power and a power-doubter. Though naturally, those roles are switched in due course. And there's a third, unseen figure: the author's voice, which contrives to doubt and contradict itself. "I am not a Communist," it declares, usually as someone runs by waving a red flag.

The Party’s over: Tony Torn and Jay Smith in Foreman’s Communism.
photo: Paula Court
The Party’s over: Tony Torn and Jay Smith in Foreman’s Communism.

Details

Dido, Queen of Carthage
By Christopher Marlowe
Ohio Theatre
79 Wooster Street 212-358-3657

Now That Communism Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty!
By Richard Foreman
Ontological at St. Mark's
Second Avenue and 10th Street 212-533-4650

Oppression, spying, mass manipulation, and elite privilege—the whole repertoire of communist and anti-communist totalitarianism runs through the piece. One recurring image deals with a dog in a box, fed through its single drawer: Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? The characters' angle on the fall of the Evil Empire is largely American, tangled up with childhood memories of pie in the sky and "we all have to share." Without adumbrating tragedy for more than the merest flash, Foreman's highly vaudevillian comedy is always as painful as it is funny. Occasionally it's even witty: "I have here some permanently sealed envelopes." Abetted and tempted by a harem of five young girls and one bare-chested male in a yashmak, Smith and Torn make a fetching Didi-and-Gogo pair. Okie-accented, wily, and red-nosed, Torn is especially fine, a sweetly malevolent right brain ready to subvert whatever cerebration his left-brain partner supplies. Untheoretical and unimperious, Foreman's theater asserts its mastery in the noblest way—by questioning itself.

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