Shanghaied Gestures

Two New Shows Explore the Fun of What's Been Seen Before

That may be the respect in which Busch has most in common with Richard Foreman, the difference being that Foreman, who virtually never appears onstage in his own pieces, projects his inner emotional density onto the whole scene. In a Foreman piece, the whole physical event is layered rather than any individual performance. Foreman actors, in fact, tend generally to be more effective when maintaining a certain degree of impassivity. The four main performers in Panic! (How to Be Happy!), the latest whirl through Foreman's brain circuitry, all have this noncommittal quality to some degree, replacing the hint of masked emotional depths that a David Patrick Kelly or a Juliana Francis might bring with a bounce-back eagerness for experience.

And in Foreman's world you had better be willing to bounce back; the dangers are everywhere, visited on you by your colleagues, the set, the soundtrack, and what seems to be an entirely irresistible willful cosmos. One of the new visual attractions of Panic! is a cutout bull's-eye target, suspended downstage right, in front of which the characters, one by one and over and over, can't resist posing, only to get whonked by some tiny sound effect that appears to cause unutterable facial pain. One can't predict the sound, though. This is the most richly varied score Foreman's come up with in some time: The music, largely classical, is constant and always changing, varied by a wide range of pitched sounds, including a madly ringing phone and enough shakes of the crash box to score a year's worth of Chuck Jones cartoons.

Panic! (How to Be Happy!): as the brain turns
photo: Paula Court
Panic! (How to Be Happy!): as the brain turns

Details

Shanghai Moon
By Charles Busch
The Drama Dept. at Greenwich House
19 Barrow Street
212-633-9632

Panic! (How To Be Happy!)
By Richard Foreman
Ontological at St. Mark's
Second Avenue and 10th Street
212-533-4650

The visual chaos that counterpoints this sonic frenzy is, as usual, laden with sex and violence, including on the one hand some fairly outré pubic-hair sight gags, and on the other much play with short swords, a lot of it centered around the knife-routine cabinet from a magic act (recalling the vanishing cabinet that never vanished anybody in some earlier Foreman pieces). The characters have distinct names and personalities, which is unusual for Foreman, but are largely relieved of the burden of dialogue by a prevailing (though not smothering) voice-over, which utters pithy assertions like "I shall not enter this tomb" and "Here's tomorrow's baked goods, stale already." Like the imagery that washes over them, the characters are Foreman's familiar prototypes, but far from staleness, done up in costumes that suggest 19th-century theatrical prints: a gruff Highland chieftain (D.J. Mendel), a Renaissance fop in a pink doublet (Robert Cucuzza), a virgin bride on the verge of Lammermoor madness (Tea Alagic), and a kohl-eyed seductress in black (Elina Löwensohn). Of the four, it's Cucuzza whose personality most makes an impression: mincing, lilting his lines in falsetto, a look of moonstruck delight in his eyes and a cynical, self-satisfied smirk on his lips, he forges a link between the here and now of Foreman's tormenting awareness and the memory of theaters past, proving again that, the more we live in the present, the more likely we are to be drawing on the past. In art there is, actually, nothing newer than the very oldest things we can snag, and the best way to make fun of the classics is to be one.

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