Willem Dafoe Goes to the Birds With Richard Foreman in Idiot Savant

The noted actor returns to the downtown stage in what might—might—be the director's last play

Apparently, Richard Foreman's Idiot Savant features insufficient ducks. While Foreman waits for a recent rehearsal to begin, he contemplates incorporating more game birds. Perhaps he can form a bas-relief duck out of Kleenex and glue, or build a three-dimensional duck with a mourning veil. "Maybe we could have a big egg with a duck's head," he muses, ambling onstage to make adjustments to a giant duckbill. Later, he discovers that a mallard-esque prop will not fit through a window. He suggests shrinking it. He eyes a table of young people and says, "Perhaps we could give it to some talented intern who is good with ducks." "A ducktern," mutters an apprentice, darkly. Willem Dafoe, who stars in the titular role, suggests retitling the play Waiting for G'duck.

But Idiot Savant—which has just begun its run at the Public Theater—is no fowl play. At least, not entirely. It boasts a silent chorus, dressed as bandit-waiter-dervishes, and three speaking parts, voiced by Dafoe, Alenka Kraigher, and Elina Löwensohn. And Foreman has made an announcement concerning the show that may ruffle more than a few theatrical feathers: "I think this may well be my last play." Admittedly, he has made such claims before, but in the past several years, he has interested himself in film, recently completing his first feature, Speaking for Dead People. He has also given up his longtime theater above St. Mark's Church, though the venue will operate for at least another year to provide space for artists in the Ontological's Incubator series. "It's a way of starting a new life at 72," he says.

In the meantime, Foreman has this last vestige of his old life to rehearse. Idiot Savant consists of a sprawling meditation on the power of language, the perils of desire, and the practice of interspecies golf. On a set that resembles a Victorian parlor in a far more sinister universe, the three characters run amok, physically and philosophically. Dafoe—who last worked with Foreman 24 years ago, playing the Local Psychotic in Miss Universal Happiness—lends his slim figure and vulpine grin to the titular role, striding across the stage garbed in a billowing white shirt, black skirt, and a samurai's top knot.

A few years ago, having split professionally and romantically with Wooster Group artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte, Dafoe approached Foreman about collaborating on a play, and Foreman approved. Dafoe has attended Foreman productions since the late '70s. "For me, it's so purely theater," he says of Foreman's work. "Nothing onstage exists anywhere else in the world. These philosophical discourses and human desire, this silliness next to the gravitas. I like how my brain works when I'm sitting in his theater—it's balancing two things at the same time, a sexual and intellectual pleasure." After a failed attempt to find producers for a contemporary Portuguese play about "Kierkegaard and eroticism," Foreman unearthed Idiot Savant, which he had written a dozen years before, and attracted the interest of the Public.

When Dafoe recalls working with Foreman on Miss Universal Happiness, he concludes, "A lot was lost on me then . . . I remember not touching down with the language at all. At best, it was music." He does, though, recollect the physical rigor Foreman demanded. "We were always moving, always doing strange, contorted things that go against your natural posture and what your body wants to do. And it was thrilling, but the whole show was a struggle to maintain your breath." For his part, Foreman remembers a young actor, "always very willing and energetic." As evidence, he cites a scene, later cut, in which Dafoe, conceding to Foreman's request, "dropped his pants and made his penis dance for five minutes."

Foreman says of working with Dafoe: "It was very easy then. It's very easy now." But Dafoe notes changes in their mutual dynamic. "I feel a lot of respect from him now," he says. "It emboldens me." Rehearsal may have actually rendered Dafoe too bold. "I'm feeling very engaged—in fact, I'm feeling overstimulated," he says. "I find myself being very obnoxious in the room and having fun and not censoring myself—I'm like a big, spoiled kid." Perhaps this process—the ducks, the philosophy, the silliness—represents a welcome respite after Dafoe's last film, Lars von Trier's Antichrist, an alarming portrait of a marriage that earned awards and boos at Cannes. He disagrees: "Work is work, and when you feel an engagement, it kind of doesn't matter what you're engaged with." Antichrist, he says, "was also fun."

"Fun" may not accurately describe Foreman's experience working on Idiot Savant. He likens rehearsing the play to "going to the factory every day, though I'd rather be going here than to a factory, of course. Here, I'm doing what I know how to do, though I'm not totally satisfied." He remarks several times that this script dates from an earlier era and does not reflect his current filmic interests. The play includes all the common Foreman tropes—the loud sound cues, the bright lights, the wordless chorus, the strings and letters crisscrossing the stage, leading the director to comment, "I feel this is sort of a regressive activity for me."

Dafoe doesn't dare clarify or summarize Idiot Savant. "Sense is found through the music and the poetry," he says. "You can't really explain it." But Foreman, unusually, attempts it: "This play is like a Brechtian teaching play," he says. "I am teaching that in the end everything is insane, and to babble is to say as much as to think you're saying intelligent things. . . . That's the message of this play. To be an idiot is as good as to be a savant."

All right, but can Foreman explain all those ducks—particularly the one that waddles on toward the play's end, robed in ermine and swinging a golf club? "It seemed like such a stupid character to have in a play," Foreman expounds. Then, he jokes, "This is an attempt to redeem the movie of 20 years ago, Howard the Duck." That would make for a ridiculous theatrical valediction, but it's best not to trust Foreman when he offers a simple elucidation or a clear-cut moral. Instead, expect perplexity and amusement, frustration and delight. Whether or not Idiot Savant marks the final Richard Foreman play, anticipate a rara avis.

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