Is This Desire?
Richard Foreman has certainly never tried to be "timely." It's sheer happy coincidence that his new piece, Paradise Hotel, plays like a gloss on the sexual hysteria currently consuming the nation's politics. The acclaimed playwright- director has never addressed anything so quotidian in his 30 years in the theater, choosing instead, as he once wrote, "to spotlight the most elusive aspects of the experience of being human."
Yet as his new piece begins, the audience learns that it is not watching Paradise Hotel after all, but "a much more disturbing, and possibly illegal play entitled Hotel Fuck!" While the announcer apologizes abjectly for the abject work ahead, he also advises us to direct our "understandable distress" toward the threat that another less provocative play, Hotel Beautiful Roses, could take over the stage at any moment. So the conflict is established a culture war between the naughty and the nice, the horny and the corny, the porn palace and a Lion King.
Of course, in a Foreman play, life among the contradictions is never so simple as Hustler versus Hallmark. For him, Paradise Hotel began with the thought, "How can I make something deliriously obsessive?" And could he stage it outside the cramped confines of his usual theater, the Ontological at St. Mark's Church?
His associate producer, Sophie Haviland, suggested that Foreman work with Reza Abdoh's old company, Dar A Luz, in hopes of finding a bigger theater. Abdoh's perverse, spectacular, and revolting work demanded fearless performers; the troupe has been disbanded since Abdoh's death several years ago. "Through my whole life I've had the feeling that oh, if only I could really break through and do something crazy," says Foreman, 61, who's won nine Obies, a MacArthur "genius" grant, and a long list of other awards for his groundbreaking work. "Now a lot of people think what I do is relatively crazy, but I have the feeling that I'm constrained by my good taste, by my intelligence. I've never been able to really free myself. That was one of the reasons I thought, 'Hey, I can use 15 of Reza's actors. Maybe they'll force me into something crazier.' "
As usual, Foreman pulled a play's worth of pages from the notebooks in which he writes raw dialogue every day. (No plots. No characters. Just lines.) He described his initial selection as "sort of a mystical play called Hotel Radio," but once he knew he'd be working with Dar A Luz, "it struck me that it could be Hotel Fuck." In the end, however, he made what is quite recognizably a Foreman play, he never found a larger theater, and only three Dar A Luz actors remain.
Foreman says that Hotel Fuck is the play's real name, or will be by the time it tours Europe. "The reason we're calling it Paradise Hotel here is for funding." His managers convinced him that he couldn't go to foundations and request money for anything by the name of Hotel Fuck. "Foreman sells out again," he jokes.
But there's also the reality that this "possibly illegal play" could become just that under the Giuliani regime. "Lord knows," he says wearily, "everything that one could say about that at this point is such a cliché. That's been part of my ambivalence about living in America. It's why I almost went and lived in France. Not that I'm not essentially a very puritanical, uptight, bourgeois person myself. But the adolescent puritan streak that is so strong in America has certainly made me feel suffocated."
The set has a wacky bordelloish look, with brocaded tasseled drapes across the walls, a red Greek column, a gorilla hanging upside down from the ceiling, striped poles, gold baby dolls, and paintings that look a bit surreal, a little Bosch. No doubt it's meant to be a hotel of some kind the kind that will fasten the drapes in place with little skulls. The characters are dressed for the 1920s or thereabouts. Their quest is to get to the right hotel (Fuck) or stay in the right play (ditto), but location is a state of mind. They're creating their own reality. ("How did we get here without riding the bus?") They are a frustrated lot. They don't seem to know where they are, but they're certain they could be someplace better.
They use the word fuck constantly. It seems to appear in every line. It doesn't, but for those counting their F-words, Paradise Hotel is the most "obscene" play Foreman has ever written.
Let's parse that word. Fuck is either good or bad, liberating or reductive, sexy or harsh. It's the language of private moments and macho rites. It's a word people use when they have an emotion they can't articulate, and in that way it addresses an old Foreman concern: the limits of language. "It's strictly in line with that tradition of what I consider productive frustration that is one of the bedrock sources, I think, of my work," says the director. Paradise Hotel is not erotic, but filled with a dark comic rage, and fuck is a tool of aggression.
Then there's "say it with flowers." As the play threatens periodically to become the dreaded Hotel Beautiful Roses, actors appear wearing flowerpots on their heads or wrapped in wreaths. The flowers are either ominous or silly, never romantic. Fuck is preferred to Beautiful Roses no doubt for the promise of sex. But. No one's getting any. Sometimes, perhaps, the vulgar isn't that far from the insipid.
Across the front of the stage, Foreman has strung his trademark string and Plexiglas. He always vows he's going to leave it out this time, then he always adds it in the end, mostly to create aesthetic distance and density. He thinks he needs it.
For years now, Foreman has set his pieces in some vague undefinable past. "Maybe the period around when I was born," he speculates. "In '37. Maybe there's some psychological thing going on there. But I often look at old photographs from turn of the century through the '30s. There's an atmosphere that seems sort of hothouse sexually repressed, so you have very erotic scary surrealist it's what starts my juices flowing. Often I start thinking I will escape that this time, and I will prepare something that seems to be going in a different direction. But then, in rehearsal, it's not me. So I revert back to what reverberates with me."
For Foreman, the paradise that is not a hotel occurred before he could live in it, "anywhere from 1880 to the beginning of the war in Paris. That's just heaven to me. It's provided major inspiration for most of my plays." Spread across the coffee table in Foreman's Soho loft are several books about Baudelaire. He's preparing for next year's play, imagining some sort of Baudelairean street. It may be his first play in an outdoor setting, but, he says, "no guarantees. By the time it's finished, I may not be able to do it."
Years ago he told an interviewer, "I want to make art that gives me the environment I would rather be living in." And that is still true, he says. "For as long as I can remember, I've profoundly felt that something's wrong with the world. Something's wrong with me. Something's wrong with everything. And all of my plays are paradise. People are surprised because there are very aggressive energies in the plays, and there are very negative things in the plays. But I think that they are redeemed. And that's my job. Redeemed by a kind of energy, a kind of light, a kind of organizational rhythm that to me is paradise."
Richard Foreman has posted 15 years' worth of his notebooks at www.ontological.com for others to use, royalty free, as raw material for plays.
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