In his essay “Foundations for a Theater,” Richard Foreman writes, “To make theater all you need is a defined space and things that enter and leave that space. . . . A jar could be thrown out into an empty space, and a minute later a stick from offstage could push that jar one inch forward. That would function as theater.”
However correct Foreman’s theory, his audiences know he isn’t nearly so parsimonious in practice. A writer and director of unparalleled generosity, his plays overflow with words, lights, noises, music, acting, dancing, and all manner of dazzling props. Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!, his 50th work in nearly 40 years, proves no exception. Like last year’s
Zomboid!, Wake Up! further diverts the audience with video projected onto two outsize screens that loom above the stage action.
But such excess isn’t intended to assault or even entertain. A quasi-mystical artist, Foreman wants his audiences to achieve a more profound state of consciousness, to pay attention less to the spectacles offered and more to how we observe and absorb those spectacles. In a program note (occurring after a jokey one in which he claims this play is a re-creation of “a strange theatrical event” he witnessed during an alien abduction), Foreman advises, “Relax! Do not work overly hard trying to understand . . . . Just stay alert and notice everything that arises and asks to be ‘noticed.’ ”
The edict not to try to understand is a comforting one, as very little of the play can be grasped in terms of narrative or creative action. Airplanes seem to be important, and aviators too. Blindfolds, possibly. Sigmund Freud receives a mention. There is a suggestion that modern media and modern warfare have alienated us from our essential selves, our dream lives, but such thematic speculation isn’t too helpful or pleasurable.
What is pleasurable? All the usual Foreman adornments, from the layered soundscape to the fantastical furnishings to the costumes, which mingle the outfits of schoolgirls, pistoleros, and Scotch guards. And especially the pleasure of watching a master theatermaker, who will celebrate his 70th birthday this year, still challenging himself. Foreman continues to discover how to incorporate a new medium into his theatrical practice, how to surprise even the most adept of audiences.
Wake Up! may be intended for the benefit of our unconscious minds, but our conscious ones can celebrate it as a triumph.