Idiot Savant is a chaotic, post modern play that eludes meaning but is a great vehicle for Willem Dafoe’s particular performance talents:  his powerful ability to express every state of mind from the hilarious to the desperate through his extraordinarily mobile face and articulated body, and his energy, intelligence, and willingness to go all the way.

The set is like a character and one sees it first so let’s start with it.  It’s a room crowded with stuff like hanging chandeliers, mirrors, cabinets, looming closed doors, portraits of one man’s face repeated from one end of the room to the other, geometric patterns, rows of alternating dark and light squares, all spelling claustrophobic and obsessive.  It is hung with letters of the alphabet, some in proper order and repeated in reverse, some random, suggesting a play about meaning or the lack of it.  Numbers are painted on the floor.  It is a compelling projection of a locked-in intelligence, of the idiot savant who dwells there.

Dafoe throws himself onto this stage dressed in a zany maid’s uniform and a man’s necktie, his hair partly tied in a top-of-the-head pony tail, it’s an electric moment.  Everything Dafoe does in this is electric, but as far as the play goes, nothing much happens.  Two women move around this room with the idiot, Marie, in a medieval looking long velvet dress with a cross around her neck, read “purity,” and Olga, in riding pants, a Hedda Gabbler with a delicious Eastern European accent.  A man between two women representing two poles of femininity.  Again.  The Idiot Savant is sexually drawn now to Marie, now to Olga but can never break through the shell that keeps him to himself.  There are lots of amusing bits, gymnastics, mysterious boxes, characters appearing from cubby holes, disappearing through doors, there are servants who appear stiffly with dark and light square patterned bows lifted as if to catch a deer on a medieval tapestry, lots of distractions but no real action.  I was a little disappointed the Idiot Savant didn’t do or say anything all that savant, unless his musings and utterances were more savvy than I could catch.

Until finally an over twice-human size figure comes walking in with a prominent yellow duck’s bill and duck’s face, and we’re given to believe that he is a god, or god-like.  He speaks platitudes in an electronically altered sonorous voice that we’ve been hearing intermittently since the beginning.  Things actually dull down in his presence, and really, he seems such a stupid idea.  If you were thinking maybe there was something to this play, here’s where you decide for sure there isn’t.  Shortly the Big Duck takes off “forever.”  Dafoe does all he can to save the play with a final stunning and astounding freeze moment.

I wondered (before Big Duck) whether the idea of this play might be that human beings, the most intelligent creatures on earth, are idiot savants, locked away from one another in impotent isolation.  Maybe, but though you can make the words work, that’s not really what comes across.  Idiot Savant is exciting visuals and a thrilling actor in search of a better play.

Idiot Savant plays at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through December 13.

Idiot Savant Starring William Dafoe

Willen Dafoe in Idiot Savant. Photo: Joan Marcus

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