Hearts and Soles

Richard Foreman has brought off another minor miracle: With his new piece, Maria del Bosco, he has, in effect, invented a theater for the young that only the older generation can truly love. Or maybe I mean that the other way around. The sentiment and substance of Foreman's piece flow from a mature perspective, while his techniques have the gift of self-refreshment, and so always seem young, even brash. The advance press release invited reviewers to think Maria del Bosco would be about supermodels and sports cars—youth-market subjects if ever such existed. This was a sort of Platonic bait-and-switch: Advertise trashy goods, then give the public the sublime instead. Foreman's supermodels are ballerinas, signifiers of art, love, and beauty; his racing car is the human mind—last seen carrying a luminescent doll (suggestive of Keith Haring's radiant baby) that explicitly symbolizes Hope.

While his visual dislocations and crashing disillusionments gratify the cynical young, Foreman woos the old with romance: Hearts, cut out, painted, or pierced in agony, crop up all over the visual fabric. Though the sparse text consists of only 44 statements repeated in varying patterns, the hour-long event fills its interstices with an exceptionally heavy reliance on music. The aural matrix, repeated over and over, is one of the few immediately recognizable recordings Foreman has ever used, and one of the most emotionally direct: Lotte Lehmann singing the first song of Schumann's cycle Frauenliebe und Leben ("A Woman's Love and Life"), in which the cycle's heroine describes the sensation of love at first sight.

While Lehmann's opening phrase, looped, repeats and repeats its heartfelt sweetness, "the Countess Maria del Bosco" (Juliana Francis) goes stylishly through the customary agonies of a Foreman protagonist, followed silently by two other females, similarly clad in white leotards and gauzy pink ballet skirts, who function variously as her assistants, abettors, tormentors, and mirror images. Periodically the three line up and link hands for what appears to be the start of Swan Lake's "Pas des Cygnes," at which point something horrible usually happens, accompanied by a violently dissonant chord that drowns out the blissful Schumann. At other points, the trio is confronted by an ensemble of men dressed as sanitation workers (billed in the program as "Stage Crew"), sometimes carrying large cylinders that look like trash cans and are laid on the floor like lengths of sewer pipe, through which Francis crawls. Their presence coaxes, from Foreman's labile tape deck, brief, deafening bursts of rock, some of it having to do with cars. Between the rock and the Schumann, there are long stretches of some '30s pop song—I think it's "One Sweet Letter From You"—played buoyantly on a movie-palace pipe organ. At one notably disorienting moment, Francis abruptly starts intoning the verse of Cole Porter's "Night and Day"—like the Schumann, a song of romantic obsession.

If the Schumann fits: Juliana Francis in Maria del Bosco
photo: Paula Court
If the Schumann fits: Juliana Francis in Maria del Bosco

Details

Maria del Bosco
By Richard Foreman
Ontological at St. Mark's
131 East 10th Street 212-533-4650

Hobson's Choice
By Harold Brighouse
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street 212-239-6200

"Searching as usual for the appropriate image, meditating upon the given object of the moment," as Foreman's voice-over informs us, the woodsy Countess Maria is simultaneously the artist creating the event and a spectator at it. Francis's elegant, high-cheekboned features greet everything that suddenly appears, from a window streaming light to an arrow through the heart, with an obedient audience's gaze of bemused innocence. The sort of mimed violence Foreman usually reserves for his male leads is visited on her, along with countless reminders of death—at one point, the light-streaming window offers up a shower of tiny skulls—but her spectatorial gaze barely varies.

"Why why why," Foreman's text asks, "is violence the only poetry left?" But that hardly seems the case. The violence itself, even at its harshest, looks almost playful, and it's constantly supplanted by preposterous, moonstruck images that offer a contrasting balm of absurdity: giant cutout heads from which Francis and her backup ballerinas remove pie-shaped wedges of brain; a huge, revolving silver object that's either a trophy or a funerary urn; a giant sign that slides on repeatedly, enjoining us to "RESIST THE PRESENT." The present, one assumes, is brutality, ugliness, and violence, while the past is art, beauty, and tenderness. Still, time keeps moving ahead—the stage is covered with clocks—and, to cite another of Foreman's reiterated lines, "The only way to be comfortable is to be dead." In which case, one might retort, there must be pleasurable and painful ways of being uncomfortable, and Foreman's pensively magical theater belongs in the former category.

Now about to enter his 35th year of making theater pieces, Foreman seems, paradoxically, to be both an ancient sage and more childishly playful than ever. For all the subtle ideas and dense mix of visual sources that have gone into Maria del Bosco, the influence that seems strongest is so basic to Foreman's theater I had long since stopped noticing it: Georges Méliès. Méliès's movies, in which the stop-frames and substitutions that make the tricks work are now apparent to the naked eye, find their echo in Foreman's tricks that are offered up transparently, as no tricks at all. And the movies came directly out of Méliès's theater, which, like Foreman's, declared itself an alternative world, a visionary space from which one can return, refreshed, to the larger and more depressing illusion we call life.

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