In place of the tormented philosophers and poetic seekers who’ve been the central figures of most of Richard Foreman’s pieces, The Gods Are Pounding My Head features innocent, befuddled lumberjacks. If that leaves you feeling intellectually cut down, you’re not alone: Hefting their axes, at various points in the roughly 75-minute work, Frenchie (T. Ryder Smith) and Dutch (Jay Smith) hew away at empty spaces or at objects on the set, while loudspeakers fill the air with amplified chops. At one point they even lift their axes, menacingly, at the heart of the planet itself, an object resembling a supersized basketball with aortic valves, rolled onstage to the accompaniment of ominous organ music. The action doesn’t take place on our planet, of course. Or does it? “Suppose I were to postulate that this is [happening] on a planet that moves around the sun,” Dutch asks us. “How would you people deal with that?” Any green planet, after all, might boast lumberjacks. And Foreman periodically fills the sky of his stage, especially at the piece’s heartbreaking end, with identical little green spheres, suggesting antique clocks or Montgolfier balloons, each encircled with a gilded equator of Roman numerals. Is Time running out for us? “Sometimes it works,” says Frenchie hopefully, downing cup after cup of an erratic “magic potion” for which he’s already said it’s too late, while a taped choir softly chants, “Requiem aeternam.” “Sometimes it works.” Slow fade.
Though more earnestly simple than previous Foreman heroes, Frenchie and Dutch are recognizably similar to their predecessors in Foreman’s parade of buddy-antagonist duos. It’s naturally Frenchie, the more astute and worldly wise of the two, who seems to keep clattering down the playground slide stage left. Just as naturally, it’s the soft-spoken, vulnerable Dutch who’s more bedazzled by Maude (Charlotta Mohlin), this play’s edition of the eternal Foreman ingenue-muse-temptress from whom all blessings and torments seem to flow. This time they flow in the form of endless plates, each bearing two fried eggs, sunny-side up. (Foreman’s fascination with the erotic imaging potential of food is unceasing.)
It’s been the continuing paradox of Foreman’s work that his characters have a slippery bas-relief quality, alternately sinking back into being mere fragments of the author’s vision and stepping forward to act with three-dimensional assertiveness. In Foreman’s dramatic landscape, you never know quite where you are, and the figures in this late picture from his atelier have a soft, waxy helplessness that makes them both less individual and infinitely sadder and more moving. They seem so indecisive and in such pain about what to do next that the Ontological air feels thick for once with compassion rather than the buzz of conflicting alpha waves. It’s probably worth noting that the piece contains a good deal less than usual of the slapstick violence and humiliation Foreman regularly visits on his characters; it feels like a plea for reconciliation and an innocent back-to-basics.
In the end, the sense of bleakness prevails, though not without a strong admixture of Foreman’s sumptuous and playful diversions. Where the world of his previous pieces has seemed to be a self-contained madcap land of delights, this newly postulated planet feels both emptier and more chillingly like our own. (Another repeated line: “The action is elsewhere.”) At moments Foreman appears to be saying goodbye to the Judeo-Christian system that’s shaped our civilization: A cascade of objects from the sky includes a pair of stone tablets, though they don’t appear to contain any commandments. Amazingly, the overriding wistfulness doesn’t prevent both Smiths from giving rich, incisive performances, while Mohlin, though granted few lines, amply makes up for the lack with her expressive eyes and vivacious body English. After decades of extravagant, rackety fun, this piece shows Foreman being pensive, somber, and very nearly tragic. Of all the multitude of 19th- and 20th-century artists on whom his work has drawn over the years, this piece summons up the last person I ever dreamed I’d be comparing him to: Beckett.