Richard Foreman has brought off another minor miracle: With his new piece, Maria del Bosco, he has, in effect, invented a theater for the young that only the older generation can truly love. Or maybe I mean that the other way around. The sentiment and substance of Foreman’s piece flow from a mature perspective, while his techniques have the gift of self-refreshment, and so always seem young, even brash. The advance press release invited reviewers to think Maria del Bosco would be about supermodels and sports cars—youth-market subjects if ever such existed. This was a sort of Platonic bait-and-switch: Advertise trashy goods, then give the public the sublime instead. Foreman’s supermodels are ballerinas, signifiers of art, love, and beauty; his racing car is the human mind—last seen carrying a luminescent doll (suggestive of Keith Haring’s radiant baby) that explicitly symbolizes Hope.
While his visual dislocations and crashing disillusionments gratify the cynical young, Foreman woos the old with romance: Hearts, cut out, painted, or pierced in agony, crop up all over the visual fabric. Though the sparse text consists of only 44 statements repeated in varying patterns, the hour-long event fills its interstices with an exceptionally heavy reliance on music. The aural matrix, repeated over and over, is one of the few immediately recognizable recordings Foreman has ever used, and one of the most emotionally direct: Lotte Lehmann singing the first song of Schumann’s cycle Frauenliebe und Leben (“A Woman’s Love and Life”), in which the cycle’s heroine describes the sensation of love at first sight.
While Lehmann’s opening phrase, looped, repeats and repeats its heartfelt sweetness, “the Countess Maria del Bosco” (Juliana Francis) goes stylishly through the customary agonies of a Foreman protagonist, followed silently by two other females, similarly clad in white leotards and gauzy pink ballet skirts, who function variously as her assistants, abettors, tormentors, and mirror images. Periodically the three line up and link hands for what appears to be the start of Swan Lake‘s “Pas des Cygnes,” at which point something horrible usually happens, accompanied by a violently dissonant chord that drowns out the blissful Schumann. At other points, the trio is confronted by an ensemble of men dressed as sanitation workers (billed in the program as “Stage Crew”), sometimes carrying large cylinders that look like trash cans and are laid on the floor like lengths of sewer pipe, through which Francis crawls. Their presence coaxes, from Foreman’s labile tape deck, brief, deafening bursts of rock, some of it having to do with cars. Between the rock and the Schumann, there are long stretches of some ’30s pop song—I think it’s “One Sweet Letter From You”—played buoyantly on a movie-palace pipe organ. At one notably disorienting moment, Francis abruptly starts intoning the verse of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”—like the Schumann, a song of romantic obsession.
“Searching as usual for the appropriate image, meditating upon the given object of the moment,” as Foreman’s voice-over informs us, the woodsy Countess Maria is simultaneously the artist creating the event and a spectator at it. Francis’s elegant, high-cheekboned features greet everything that suddenly appears, from a window streaming light to an arrow through the heart, with an obedient audience’s gaze of bemused innocence. The sort of mimed violence Foreman usually reserves for his male leads is visited on her, along with countless reminders of death—at one point, the light-streaming window offers up a shower of tiny skulls—but her spectatorial gaze barely varies.
“Why why why,” Foreman’s text asks, “is violence the only poetry left?” But that hardly seems the case. The violence itself, even at its harshest, looks almost playful, and it’s constantly supplanted by preposterous, moonstruck images that offer a contrasting balm of absurdity: giant cutout heads from which Francis and her backup ballerinas remove pie-shaped wedges of brain; a huge, revolving silver object that’s either a trophy or a funerary urn; a giant sign that slides on repeatedly, enjoining us to “RESIST THE PRESENT.” The present, one assumes, is brutality, ugliness, and violence, while the past is art, beauty, and tenderness. Still, time keeps moving ahead—the stage is covered with clocks—and, to cite another of Foreman’s reiterated lines, “The only way to be comfortable is to be dead.” In which case, one might retort, there must be pleasurable and painful ways of being uncomfortable, and Foreman’s pensively magical theater belongs in the former category.
Now about to enter his 35th year of making theater pieces, Foreman seems, paradoxically, to be both an ancient sage and more childishly playful than ever. For all the subtle ideas and dense mix of visual sources that have gone into Maria del Bosco, the influence that seems strongest is so basic to Foreman’s theater I had long since stopped noticing it: Georges Méliès. Méliès’s movies, in which the stop-frames and substitutions that make the tricks work are now apparent to the naked eye, find their echo in Foreman’s tricks that are offered up transparently, as no tricks at all. And the movies came directly out of Méliès’s theater, which, like Foreman’s, declared itself an alternative world, a visionary space from which one can return, refreshed, to the larger and more depressing illusion we call life.
You might put up Harold Brighouse (1882- 1958) as a sort of counter-visionary to Foreman, a regionalist and naturalist playwright for whom the outside world was the principal governor of onstage details. But that was in another country, nearly a century ago. Time has had its little joke, gently, not at Brighouse’s expense but on his behalf. Practically the only play of his anyone remembers, Hobson’s Choice (1915) is one of Britain’s hardy stage perennials—often revived, twice filmed, multiply televised, and even, unwisely, transmogrified into a Broadway musical. (To be fair, the musical had Norman Wisdom, though no other kind.) The reason for the play’s popularity is simple: It’s as much a fairy tale and a magic spectacle as any of Foreman’s pieces, only with trappings that come untransformed from everyday life: a sort of songless Christmas panto set in a cobbler’s shop, where Cinderella, this time around, conquers the ogre (her tyrannical father) while playing fairy godmother to the spineless shoemaking genius whom she changes from a worm into a man.
Brighouse may or may not have known that fantasy was at the play’s core; what he couldn’t have guessed is how elegantly time would coat his rough realism with a patina of quaintness. To him a Lancashire boot-shop, with its goods made on the premises, must have been a sweaty, gritty place. For us it’s purest nostalgia: How much, one wonders, would audience members pay today for a pair of Willie Mossop’s perfect-fit, handmade shoes? We wear sneakers made in places like China and Indonesia, which relive the most nightmarish days of Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, with child labor crammed in windowless rooms earning nine cents an hour. Brighouse’s naturalism, a century ago, walked hand in hand with the clamor for workers’ rights and industrial reform. Maybe it’s time to look at his forgotten plays on subjects like the Luddite movement and the capital-labor conflict.
Meanwhile, there’s Hobson’s Choice. David Warren’s production, on a bright, spacious set by Derek McLane, slides with summery cheer over the play’s dark underpinnings, making it seem more of a fairy tale than ever. There’s clearly no harm, though a great deal of skill and relish, in Brian Murray’s Hobson, a teddy bear pretending to be an ogre. But what fun it is to hear the teddy growl: Has anyone ever pronounced the words “pork pie” with the resonant revulsion of Murray’s hung-over Hobson? I’d have spent the evening jotting down favorite Murray phrases if my attention hadn’t been distracted by two more substantive achievements. Martha Plimpton as Maggie, the comedy’s resourceful Cinderella, gets the role’s firmness and softness blended in exactly the right proportions. This isn’t easy; a Maggie who plays too hard can turn the work into the boss’s taming by a shrew, while playing too tenderly can turn it into arrant nonsense. Plimpton’s Maggie is what Brighouse envisioned: a caring, rather than a controlling, modern woman, her father’s daughter by instinct but intelligent enough to perceive his mistakes. David Aaron Baker, as her target of choice, not only matches but betters Plimpton, etching his whole trajectory, from trembling wallflower to budding tycoon, with a grotesque realism that roots the fairy tale in everyday comedy. Warren has let some of the supporting cast slide by too glibly, but Judith Roberts and Peter Maloney, in the no-nonsense roles of a wealthy customer and a Scots doctor, do admirably, and Laura Bauer’s well-cut costumes are a good cut above what this period usually looks like Off-Broadway.
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