While accepting the Best Play honors for Benita Canova and Pearls for Pigs at the 1997 Village Voice Obie Awards ceremony, Richard Foreman gave a rousing, Clifford Odetslike speech about the gravity of the current culture wars. There is a battle going on, he admonished the audience, trying to debunk the cynical view that the crisis was mere journalistic claptrap. At the time it seemed he was talking about the ongoing failure in government funding for the arts, with a few annihilating references to the Christian Coalition and similar censorship-minded conservative groups. But after attending many of the productions in “No Strings Attached,” the third annual (and perhaps final) ForemanFest, it became obvious to me why the plaintive tone of Foreman’s acceptance speech seemed directed as much at Downtown theatergoers as at the Uptown powers that be.
The first week of this monthlong, 14-play event, curated by that indomitable young director and impresario Ian Hill, reflected nothing so much as the extreme marginalization of experimental theater in American culture. This, of course, has nothing to do with where the event was taking place. (Ludlow Street, home of ForemanFest theaters Nada and the Piano Store, is one of the more conspicuously trendy blocks in the city.) But when a group of talented young artists come together to celebrate the work of a central figure in the American avant-garde, it’s disturbing to report that the actors tended to outnumber their audience, even when the casts were relatively small.
For a critic who spends a lot of time in the performing nooks and crannies of the Lower East Side, it was just another sign of how true alternative theater has become as remote (and apparently irrelevant) as contemporary left-wing politics. While mainstream culture may have grown superficially edgier in the ’90s, the counterculture has been reduced to small pockets of virtually unwatched activity. Only veteran companies with a prestigious imprimatur like the Wooster Group or those with an unusual talent for marketing are able to capture the attention of an increas-
ingly risk-averse audience. Sad to say, but even the more daring playgoers have gone the way of Zagat.
Certainly, the ForemanFest could be accurately described in consumer-guide jargon as “hit or miss.” But make no mistake: it’s not intended to serve as a “Best of” retrospective. In fact, many of the plays donated by Foreman are from his trunk marked “unproduced,” while the more recognizable titles are treated as opportunities for directors to unslavishly create their own ecstatic visions. True, not all of the productions are beyond student quality, and a few smash by like car wrecks, but the high points amount to a series of maverick tributes to an artist who prizes nothing more than theatrical autonomy.
One of the more fascinating works making its debut, Harry in Love— a 1966 three-act play that apparently had Broadway prospects— represents for Foreman the aesthetic road not taken. Set in a New York apartment, the piece has an uncharacteristically realistic foundation. The action revolves around Harry’s flamboyant inability to find his psychological footing while married to his flighty wife Hilda (Josephine Cashman), a character who spends much of the time offstage (evidently drugged into a
coma by her paranoid husband).
Despite the romantic comedy milieu, the play (subtitled “A Manic Vaudeville”) is essentially a vehicle for Harry’s harassed consciousness. While Hilda’s brother meekly demands that his brother-in-law show his sister more affection, and strange suitors drop in with the hope of stealing the mentally erratic waif away from her domestic prison, Harry’s irrational thoughts quickly multiply. Hill, who takes on the role of the tortured husband himself, does an incisive job directing this feverishly revealing if somewhat overlong cartoon, which ping-pongs between straightforward farce and dippy surrealism. Of special note in the cast is Michaelangelo Barasorda IV, who plays Hilda’s suave paramour in a perfectly smarmy deadpan that would infuriate even a more balanced version of Foreman’s neurotically uncensored antihero.
Hill has somewhat less success staging Miss Universal Happiness, a play that exemplifies the Ontological-
Hysteric middle-period style. In other words, it’s frenzied, kaleidoscopic, completely unpredictable, and often frustratingly hermetic. The action involves two revolutionaries and a prostitute in a Mexican hotel, a Miss Universal Happiness beauty queen, a mad scientist known as Doctor Memory, and a litter of meowing Cat-Scientist assistants. Foreman being Foreman, the treatment is studiously antinarrative: characters don’t so much interact as collide in and out of one another’s theatrical orbit.
Of course the script, which the author dealt with rather freehandedly when directing it himself in the mid ’80s, is merely one element in a densely choreographed theatrical event. Hill, however, is working at a decided disadvantage. Lacking the relatively long rehearsal time Foreman typically enjoys, he also has to contend with Nada’s cramped playing area. His shoestring production searches for visual focus amid the wall beams and alcoves, but never manages to locate a logistical center in all the spiraling textual chaos.
Director Edward Einhorn finds a campy, B-52’s groove for his world
premiere staging of The Dance, a
highly conceptual meditation on a Foreman-like character’s refusal to shake his booty. A nebbish with a genius IQ, Harold (played with subtle humor by Christopher Roberts) sits in the middle of a circular desk, dressed in a silver space suit with a similarly attired doll in his clutches, offering a quartet of dancers abstruse reasons why he cannot join them. Content to philosophize about the art of “physical frolic and unexpected movement” while MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This” blares, he admits that the women “bring him to the verge of trying.” His mental life, however, amounts to a kind of hyperkinetic tango of the abstract. It’s not that Harold has anything against fox-trotting and sambaing, simply that his dance partners belong to the invisible world. Though this waltzing idea may not constitute one of Foreman’s more engaging dialectics, the piece has a jaunty innocence and theatricality, which Einhorn and his company of actors and dancers surefootedly exploit.
The Beckettian power of Foreman’s vision is on display in
director David Finkelstein’s version of Permanent Brain Damage, a three-character enactment of a woman’s journey into the core of her damaged being. An older actress (the haunting Alice Teirstein) and a younger one (Moira Stone) speak cryptically from the balcony, while a middle-aged puppeteer and dancer (the drag performer Agnes DeGarron) mutely flails around in her own colorful confusion. A split red cabbage occupying two bowls of fiendishly bubbling seltzer water serves as the physical reminder of the damaged brain, the apparent source of the ensuing interior pageant. To an eclectic soundtrack of music and elliptical comments, the silent woman (whose life, we are told, has left her mentally short-circuited) dons an array of cockeyed head wraps and hats, vestigial signs of a life once filled with hope. Impressively performed in an understated yet profoundly absurd manner, the production derives a powerful emotional current from DeGarron’s wounded, clownlike persona. With his saucer eyes, rubbery limbs, and peculiar genius for handling scarves, he brings poignant life to this elusive, mind-tickling stage poem.
Strange, often baffling, but always deeply felt, Foreman’s body of work is a testament to a playwright’s search for fresh and unimagined ways of experiencing reality. Discarding conven-
tional pieties and theatrical expectations, he continually forces himself to start from scratch, a newborn empiricist determined to remain faithful to the flux of life. The risks of such artistic commitment are one with the rewards. But, as the sparsely attended festival disturbingly suggests, for those pursuing an analogous path today, the risks may be the only reward.