Theater archives

University Wits


The Village Voice proudly launches University Wits, a monthly forum of theater reviews by students from some of the finest graduate theater programs in the commutable area—NYU, Columbia, the CUNY Graduate Center, the Yale School of Drama, and A.R.T.’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. In an era of the theater review as consumer report, our mission is obvious: To expand the theatrical conversation by providing a venue for the next generation of serious theater critics. This first round focuses on Richard Foreman’s new offering, The Gods are Pounding My Head! (AKA Lumberjack Messiah)—ostensibly the avant-garde legend’s final stage offering before embarking on a new multimedia adventure revolving around—gasp!—film. Next up, a new batch of University Wits takes on Beckett: the Worth Street Theater Company’s production of Happy Days and the Irish Rep’s production of Engame. Look for their reviews early in March. —Charles McNulty, Theater Editor

Richard Foreman’s bittersweet prophecy
By Stella Gorlin

An alienated locomotive, mighty symbol of the Industrial Revolution, idles in a grotesque graveyard, lounging on a track that leads nowhere. A discarded playground slide rusts against a red plaid wall. Scattered fragments of Victoriana torment the ghosts loitering in The Gods are Pounding My Head!, a sadistic comic requiem. Richard Foreman has created his own Endgame, an oddly serene, post-apocalyptic wasteland of scrap metal and charred skulls. Dripping with a venom and froth, Foreman’s latest work confirms his mastery of über Brechtian Verfremdung.

At the heart of Foreman’s carefully choreographed chaos are the wry Frenchie (T. Ryder Smith) and the melancholy Dutch (Jay Smith), a pair of lumberjacks drifting aimlessly through the shadowy junkyard of civilization. Too weary to wield their axes, our anti-heroes, played with stylistic deliberation, voice Foreman’s nausea at the decay of intellectual and artistic complexity. In a breathy monotone, Dutch “postulates” endlessly about the relevance of art for the newest generation of shallow “pancake people,” while Frenchie delivers bons mots in a Scottish drawl and frolics with the alluring Maude (Charlotta Mohlin), who wears her heart on her sleeve, literally. She too is a remnant, a flesh and blood reminder of sexual desire. Maude, deliciously played by Mohlin, embodies “the big heart of the world,” slowly crumbling into dust.

Weaving in and out of the action, the chorus of vaudeville soldiers, clad in metallic pantaloons and Prussian helmets adorned with a cross, is a dystopian manifestation of Foreman’s sinister design. These menacing clowns in John Lennon sunglasses creep onstage, stubble-faced and smiling, with ambiguous intent. We never discover this bizarre ensemble’s purpose, making its presence in Foreman’s tableaux simultaneously frightening and hilarious.

The brilliant scenic environment and soundscape anchor Foreman’s goal of disassociation. His startling theatrical vocabulary introduces a paradoxical world in which pictures replace dialogue and spatial and temporal rules no longer apply. Pasting together shards of opposing styles into a disjointed collage, he weaves a dense tapestry of sound and image, comedy and danger. Eerie dings, romantic melodies, the cock of a gun, and Foreman’s booming, messianic voice erupt ominously from the loudspeakers. Out of the soot of this funhouse cemetery sprout marzipan mushrooms while white doves hover amid bouquets of light bulbs, mangled steel piping, and leering human skulls. Glimmers of life endure even on this blasted heath.

In Foreman’s final gesture, Dutch, Frenchie, and Maude guzzle a mysterious “magic elixir,” served in dark grails by the Cirque du Soleil-like chorus. As the lights fade, we hear only the cacophony of empty cups clattering to the floor—a hauntingly cryptic ending to a production of marvelous intensity. Has Foreman orchestrated a hallucinogenic suicide note? Does he fear that “a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality” has no room for his artistic expression? The enthusiastic crowd clamoring for tickets at St. Mark’s Church suggests otherwise. Perhaps, like the triumphant mushrooms, art springs eternal, even in the age of Internet pop-ups.

Stella Gorlin is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy at A.R.T.’s Institute for Advance Theater Training at Harvard University

Now this is living
By Mark Blankenship

The Gods are Pounding My Head! is my first experience of Richard Foreman’s theater, my only chance to witness a downtown legend’s genius. I wonder if I waited too long. Though Gods’ ideas left me buzzing, their execution suggests Foreman has already said goodbye, dismissing his public as “pancake people.”

Pancake people are what Foreman dubs the inhabitants of The Gods‘ world. Specifically, they’re three glassy-eyed lumberjacks whose minds and lives are pressed so thin they can barely function. With monotone speech and rigid limbs, they stumble through a world they’re powerless to change.

And their grotesque world needs changing. While a mechanical voice barks about a dying society, everything floods with savage white light. In pith helmets topped with crosses, a silent ensemble flaunts an oversize set of Ten Commandments tablets and giant medals of honor, mocking their meaning as symbols. This horrible chaos might spur revolt, but the lumberjacks only flail at the set with the wrong side of their axes.

The impotent trio—and indeed the entire piece—makes a potent allegory for the decline of thought. “Sometimes,” Foreman writes in the program, “I shrink back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the . . . density of deeply evolved personality.” This density gives way to the drones onstage, and it’s easy to wonder if we’re just like them. Do we lurch around like fools and call it a meaningful life?

Foreman’s set compounds the dread implications. Metal bars and pieces of machines litter a stage that’s a gothic-black bedroom on the left and a garden of fake flowers on the right. A living chamber draped with death, an earth made verdant with plastic: The landscape is poisoned by the same entropy that makes the characters buffoons. This vision suffocates: Mindless doom feels inevitable as the lumberjacks thud against another metal pole.

This is why The Gods‘ final moment is such a relief. It’s a simple action—the three drink desperately from cups of “magic potion”—yet it unifies the lumberjacks in a quest to feel something new. Though there’s no hint they’ll succeed, there is hope in the fact that they’re searching. For a moment, the mechanical voice is silent and actions are invested with purpose.

An audience, however, may be frustrated by purpose’s late arrival. For although The Gods is fascinating to think about, it is arduous to watch. It makes sense for this brain-dead world to have one tempo, one volume, and one small set of repeated gestures, but once the pattern is grasped, there are few surprises to keep the mind from wandering. And because he states his intentions so clearly in the program—and in the mechanical voice’s refrain about a “paper-thin world”—Foreman leaves little room to interpret his work. As though we won’t understand without bludgeoning, he swings The Gods like a hammer, repeating its message over and over until our heads are pounding too.

Mark Blankenship is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama.

Lumberjack grace
By T. Nikki Cesare

Richard Foreman’s work often suggests the operatic, and this is especially so in his latest and purportedly last play, The Gods are Pounding My Head! (AKA Lumberjack Messiah). Two weary, postulating lumberjacks, Dutch and Frenchie, brilliantly portrayed by Jay Smith and T. Ryder Smith, are set against the “inevitable psychic disintegration that anticipates the threatened twilight of the West.” Complicating their pondering is the wistful, not-quite-innocent nymphette Maude. Startling, lyrical, and just manipulative enough, Maude, played by the very promising Charlotta Mohlin, intrudes upon Dutch and Frenchie’s elegiac existence like Modernism displacing Romanticist notions of truth and beauty. There is music throughout this play—in the explicit sound-scheme (the Kurosawa-esque percussion in the opening being particularly striking), but more notably, in the relationships between the characters themselves. Maude is the extreme chromaticism that emerges from and ultimately undoes Western harmony.

The set, sparser than previous Ontological Hysteric productions, is lumberjack-goth: red-and-black plaid walls adorned with skulls, indecipherable number configurations, and a flock of fake white doves hanging from the ceiling—all bifurcated by Foreman’s familiar string and pulley architectonics. Dutch and Frenchie, wearing variations on the plaid theme, are bedecked in pearls and ruffles; diamond bracelets shine from Maude’s wrists. These adornments lend a sensitivity to the lumberjack’s masculinity, while giving way to the undercurrent of aging virility in the juxtaposition between them and this young and agile lumberjill (all gesture, disarming blue eyes, and a voice like a sound effect in its squeals and squeaking). Maude’s androgynous figure belies a certain Eve-like temptation within this expired Eden.

In addition to the three protagonists are Foreman’s usual “expendables,” the stage crew-henchmen: six tights-wearing figures bedecked in crude crowns that might represent a troupe of Mini-me popes. They scuttle among the props and characters like imperial cockroaches caught in the light: never alone, rarely hesitant, always moving back into the shadows. If one were to seek out meaning in this play—a paradoxical if not impossible project in itself—one might interpret these henchmen as the sky itself, from which items and symbolism tumble. (The sky has fallen: Foreman is no longer writing plays.) Moving across a stage delimited by a locomotive engine stage right and the ladder and slide of a grownup swing set stage left, the characters negotiate the shifting props and significations so that The Gods becomes the work of art as a mechanical reproduction—but one touched with grace rather than industrial depersonalization.

Foreman writes of The Gods, “The lumberjacks suffer, in secret, from a broken heart—which may indeed be the heart of the world. But, at the end, hope still springs eternal.” The most profound facet of this quietly stunning play is that it does remain hopeful. The three characters, wearing plumage and drinking a “magic potion” until the lights finally go out, are disheartened, but it is difficult to believe that they are heartbroken. Though if it is Foreman’s last play, it will be a melancholy heartbreak after all.

T. Nikki Cesare is a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and Managing Editor of TDR: The Drama Review.

Richard Foreman buries the hatchet?
By Paul Menard

For many of New York’s avant-garde theatre types, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. The time when theatrical halls are decked with kewpie dolls and strings are hung across stages with care. The time hen the cold snows of winter are melted away by the warm rays of spotlights aimed directly into theatergoers’ eyes. The time for New York’s own hipster high holiday.

It’s time to see the new Richard Foreman show. And this may be your last chance.

For over three decades, Richard Foreman—auteur director and fixture of the avant-garde—has created jarring and oddly transcendent masterpieces with his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. Perhaps best known for his trademark style of Brechtian audience alienation (unemotional acting, cluttered stages crisscrossed with strings, Plexiglas partitions between the actors and audience), Foreman has announced that he’s finally calling it quits after his current show, The Gods are Pounding My Head! (AKA Lumberjack Messiah). When the lights lower on the show’s final performance on April 17, Foreman claims he will no longer return to the renowned Ontological-Hysteric style of theater he first created in 1968. Instead, he intends to pursue filmmaking with collaborator Sophie Haviland.

Richard Foreman retire? What’s next? Cher putting an end to her farewell tour?

Eschewing the more overtly narrative and political structure of last year’s Ontological-Hysteric offering, King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe, The Gods represents a return to pure Forman form. The celebrated Foreman strings are still bisecting the claustrophobic stage according to an unknown spatial geometry. But, with actors literally reaching out over the knee-high Plexiglas partition and the once-familiar kewpie dolls replaced by halos of artificial doves, one wonders if Foreman’s theatrical journey is indeed coming to a close.

The Gods is essentially a metaphysical medieval morality tale—a character’s journey towards salvation—filtered through Foreman’s postmodernist lens. And, boy, postmodernism can be some messy stuff. Two bespectacled lumberjacks, the vulnerable Dutch (Jay Smith) and his wry friend Frenchie (T. Ryder Smith), encounter the youthful Maude (Charlotta Mohlin), who goads the duo through a series of uncanny episodes as they symbolically struggle under the earthly weight of civilization. All the while, a mute chorus, resembling a scruffy papal biker gang, parades handmade props through a jumbled set that includes a primitive train trapped on a tiny track, a playground slide leading nowhere, a wall of red plaid flannel, and a hint of religiosity.

Sonic non-sequiturs (a Tennyson poem or a snippet of My Darling Clementine) abound throughout. But amid the din of electronic buzzing and church organs, it is Foreman’s own modulated voice that comes through strongest. While loyal audience members sit, confronted with the now familiar images of Foreman’s theater coupled with the news of his alleged retirement, onstage lumberjacks exhaust themselves by futilely hammering axes against a stage bereft of trees. Resonantly, Forman (perhaps exhausted himself) intones, “You’ve already seen this before. Therefore it will break your heart.”

For some fans, it surely will.

Paul Menard is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy and Script Development at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Postulations in plaid
By Roxane Heinze

Walking into the Ontological-Hysteric space, I am greeted by the expected and yet still somewhat disconcerting image of Richard Foreman standing on his set, observing the audience, his audience. Making sure everyone has a seat, removing over-large bags from spectators who came foolishly expecting space and (relative) comfort, he plays host and overseer to these, his guests. Foreman’s presence is a common thing; in fact, he is the most necessary and pivotal individual in every one of his pieces, The Gods being no exception. So why am I so struck by him this time around? Call it foreshadowing or hindsight, Foreman’s presence onstage anticipates the wistful lumberjacks to come. But Foreman doesn’t need the plaid shirt or the big shoes because he’s the real thing. He stands in front of the house, his casual, droopy demeanor belying the quick and sad wit ever-present in his sharp eyes. He carefully takes in everyone present and allows them to observe him as well. Here is the lumberjack messiah: the wistful, mournful artist observing the ever-changing, and forever changed, world.

Both Dutch and Frenchie, the two lumberjack companions who seem unable to ply their trade, often echo his simple observation of the audience in this dark and poignant performance. There is a sublime sadness, a proud pain that pervades this, the latest of Foreman’s ruminations on the universe as he knows it. Dutch keeps dropping his axe, his tool of identification, in wistful fits of melancholy. A desperate refrain bemoans the death of the three-dimensional person. The “heart of the world” is in danger of being destroyed. Alfred Lloyd Tennyson’s muse from the poem “Come into the Garden Maude” is given flesh to become the Lumberjacks’ lover-muse, who comes bearing curative love potions. Her bright frailty exposes the elusive, easily damaged and forgotten forms of knowledge that the author—and therefore the lumberjacks—mourn most. The fear of becoming “pancake people” is prevalent as Dutch and Frenchie are overwhelmed by gigantic medals that obscure their identities and force them to walk like squashed cartoon characters. The surface images are suspect for their preposterous boastfulness and lack of substance. The medals Dutch and Frenchie carry become synonymous with their accomplishments (Dutch sings “I still have my medals”), even as the weight of these accomplishments threatens to crush them, indeed flatten them into the pancake people they fear.

Both Jay Smith (Dutch) and T. Ryder Smith (Frenchie) manage to inhabit this world of tartan melancholy with remarkable grace. Their ruminations and “postulations” construct a genuinely heart-rending mood of loss and memorial. It is clear, both from the production and the program notes, that Foreman feels that his lumberjack days are over; or perhaps more accurately, that there is no longer any room in the world for lumberjacks (a/k/a the avant-garde). The pain is palpable. Mortality is in the air. A world-weariness prevails, notably that of an exhausted, meditative conscience.

But while the death of the avant-garde has been announced, its corpse buried, and its spirit mourned, perhaps there’s still a bit of life in the glorious monster yet. Maybe a small draught of love potion will help?

Roxanne Heinze is a Ph.D. student in Theater History at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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