University Wits

 The Village Voice proudly launches University Wits, a monthly forum of theater reviews by students from some of the finest graduate theater programs in the commutable area—NYU, Columbia, the CUNY Graduate Center, the Yale School of Drama, and A.R.T.'s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. In an era of the theater review as consumer report, our mission is obvious: To expand the theatrical conversation by providing a venue for the next generation of serious theater critics. This first round focuses on Richard Foreman's new offering, The Gods are Pounding My Head! (AKA Lumberjack Messiah)—ostensibly the avant-garde legend's final stage offering before embarking on a new multimedia adventure revolving around—gasp!—film. Next up, a new batch of University Wits takes on Beckett: the Worth Street Theater Company's production of Happy Days and the Irish Rep's production of Engame. Look for their reviews early in March. —Charles McNulty, Theater Editor

Richard Foreman's bittersweet prophecy
By Stella Gorlin

An alienated locomotive, mighty symbol of the Industrial Revolution, idles in a grotesque graveyard, lounging on a track that leads nowhere. A discarded playground slide rusts against a red plaid wall. Scattered fragments of Victoriana torment the ghosts loitering in The Gods are Pounding My Head!, a sadistic comic requiem. Richard Foreman has created his own Endgame, an oddly serene, post-apocalyptic wasteland of scrap metal and charred skulls. Dripping with a venom and froth, Foreman's latest work confirms his mastery of über Brechtian Verfremdung.

First class Foreman: T. Ryder Smith, Charlotta Mohlin, and Jay Smith
First class Foreman: T. Ryder Smith, Charlotta Mohlin, and Jay Smith


The Gods are Pounding My Head! (AKA Lumberjack Messiah)
By Richard Foreman
Ontological Theatre at St. Mark's Church
131 East 10th Street

At the heart of Foreman's carefully choreographed chaos are the wry Frenchie (T. Ryder Smith) and the melancholy Dutch (Jay Smith), a pair of lumberjacks drifting aimlessly through the shadowy junkyard of civilization. Too weary to wield their axes, our anti-heroes, played with stylistic deliberation, voice Foreman's nausea at the decay of intellectual and artistic complexity. In a breathy monotone, Dutch "postulates" endlessly about the relevance of art for the newest generation of shallow "pancake people," while Frenchie delivers bons mots in a Scottish drawl and frolics with the alluring Maude (Charlotta Mohlin), who wears her heart on her sleeve, literally. She too is a remnant, a flesh and blood reminder of sexual desire. Maude, deliciously played by Mohlin, embodies "the big heart of the world," slowly crumbling into dust.

Weaving in and out of the action, the chorus of vaudeville soldiers, clad in metallic pantaloons and Prussian helmets adorned with a cross, is a dystopian manifestation of Foreman's sinister design. These menacing clowns in John Lennon sunglasses creep onstage, stubble-faced and smiling, with ambiguous intent. We never discover this bizarre ensemble's purpose, making its presence in Foreman's tableaux simultaneously frightening and hilarious.

The brilliant scenic environment and soundscape anchor Foreman's goal of disassociation. His startling theatrical vocabulary introduces a paradoxical world in which pictures replace dialogue and spatial and temporal rules no longer apply. Pasting together shards of opposing styles into a disjointed collage, he weaves a dense tapestry of sound and image, comedy and danger. Eerie dings, romantic melodies, the cock of a gun, and Foreman's booming, messianic voice erupt ominously from the loudspeakers. Out of the soot of this funhouse cemetery sprout marzipan mushrooms while white doves hover amid bouquets of light bulbs, mangled steel piping, and leering human skulls. Glimmers of life endure even on this blasted heath.

In Foreman's final gesture, Dutch, Frenchie, and Maude guzzle a mysterious "magic elixir," served in dark grails by the Cirque du Soleil-like chorus. As the lights fade, we hear only the cacophony of empty cups clattering to the floor—a hauntingly cryptic ending to a production of marvelous intensity. Has Foreman orchestrated a hallucinogenic suicide note? Does he fear that "a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality" has no room for his artistic expression? The enthusiastic crowd clamoring for tickets at St. Mark's Church suggests otherwise. Perhaps, like the triumphant mushrooms, art springs eternal, even in the age of Internet pop-ups.

Stella Gorlin is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy at A.R.T.'s Institute for Advance Theater Training at Harvard University

Now this is living
By Mark Blankenship

The Gods are Pounding My Head! is my first experience of Richard Foreman's theater, my only chance to witness a downtown legend's genius. I wonder if I waited too long. Though Gods' ideas left me buzzing, their execution suggests Foreman has already said goodbye, dismissing his public as "pancake people."

Pancake people are what Foreman dubs the inhabitants of The Gods' world. Specifically, they're three glassy-eyed lumberjacks whose minds and lives are pressed so thin they can barely function. With monotone speech and rigid limbs, they stumble through a world they're powerless to change.

And their grotesque world needs changing. While a mechanical voice barks about a dying society, everything floods with savage white light. In pith helmets topped with crosses, a silent ensemble flaunts an oversize set of Ten Commandments tablets and giant medals of honor, mocking their meaning as symbols. This horrible chaos might spur revolt, but the lumberjacks only flail at the set with the wrong side of their axes.

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