Lovers of Richard Foreman’s theater, relax. Despite all the new banners and horn tootings, the old firm is still open for business, in the same location. The darkly gleaming new product that just rolled off the assembly line is rather different in style from recent models, that’s all. Naturally the firm likes to vary its approach occasionally, so that its creativity doesn’t go stale. But the substance, the techniques, and the stratagems are largely the same. Disregard any inanities you read in the uptown press about Foreman jettisoning his theater for a magical new world called film. Not only has Foreman been there before, but this allegedly new world is neither as fascinating nor as overpowering to his latest work, Zomboid!, as prior reports would indicate. Foreman can never wholly renounce the theater: He knows, as all of us who work there know, that the theater is an eternally alluring temptation; film is only an industry. The evidence is there, on the back of the program: 38 years of constant, variegated, memorable theater pieces . . . and three works on film or video.
Granted, Zomboid! is subtitled Film Performance Project #1, and two huge projection screens loom over one corner of the cozy upstairs space at St. Mark’s that Foreman’s art has inhabited since the early ’90s. But the people on the film say little and do less; the people onstage, who say equally little, do a great deal more. An elaborate taped soundtrack provides two voices that speak the bulk of the text. This is no new departure but a return to some of Foreman’s earliest forays, an artist’s retreat into the deeper recesses of his sensibility, for a re-examination of premises. Much of Foreman’s theatrical effort has gone toward giving physical life to intellectual or spiritual concepts; in the process, those concepts have taken on a fully rounded, multidimensional life of their own as roles in drama. Think of the wonderful actors who have animated Foreman’s pieces in recent years: Joanna Adler, Juliana Francis, David Greenspan, David Patrick Kelly, T. Ryder Smith, James Urbaniak. This could be the roster of any mainstream theater. Foreman’s loudly proclaimed aesthetic shift is partly just a declaration of something we already knew: that he never dreamed of running such a theater. The human complexity and vibrancy of artists like these simply seduced him away from his philosophic preoccupations, much as Moliére was seduced away from his father’s upholstery shop.
The difference, of course, is that Moliére hated upholstery; philosophy is Foreman’s deepest love. His interest in theater began as a fascination with the discrepancies between what we see and what we hear, between what is and what we think. Zomboid! fixates on those discrepancies. It is literally a “film performance” in that it plays film and performance off against each other, while challenging both with its complex audio track. One of the most densely cerebral pieces Foreman has ever created, it’s also, intriguingly, one of his most aggressive, though its abstractness mostly keeps its aggression from threatening the audience. Spheres scattered around the stage suggest giant eyeballs, and often an actor mimes attacking one of them with a mallet, usually accompanied by the sound of glass breaking—a sound effect so frequent as to make this the noisiest Foreman piece in years. Foreman’s lights are newly aggressive here too, flooding the stage not only to wipe out the on-screen images, but to drown the live activity with their glare as well.
Those on-screen images display a group of stony-faced people, one or two of them, or sometimes all, inexplicably blindfolded. Sometimes they move or speak; in one set of shots, a blindfolded woman walks cautiously down a staircase toward us while another follows, crawling. The stage action, which also at times includes blindfolding, is more formalized than usual, interacting with the screen in ways that stir up masses of ideas; the piece would take a platoon of art historians to explicate. The tone is strikingly austere—the eroticism that suffuses many Foreman pieces is almost wholly absent. Still, there are playthings: The onstage life of Zomboid! is filled with stuffed toy donkeys; both the audio track and the onstage cast groan, or occasionally, sing, about donkeys. But what tail are these blindfolded folk trying to pin and on whom?
What the donkeys signify is anyone’s guess: human stupidity, the Democratic Party’s ineffectuality, the obstinacy that refuses to accept the difference between the perceived and the actual. “This is the only real world,” an on-screen title keeps telling us, a patent untruth. The frequent positing of stage and screen as alternative realities makes Zomboid! a Foremanian commentary on John Jesurun’s unnervingly dialectical ’80s piece, Deep Sleep, in which the on-screen actors tried to lure those onstage into the film. Will Foreman succumb to the lure? Those who misguidedly flog film as the superior art, and have welcomed him into it as if the stage were some hateful dictatorship that all artists should flee, have their shoe on the wrong sprocket. The stage is Foreman’s world: When the film images fade, the set, the live actors, and Foreman himself are all still plainly there.