Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater that he founded in New York City in 1968 have been icons of avant-garde theater. He’s made a number of statements about his philosophical and theatrical purposes touching on, e.g., “total theater,” “minimalist theater,” “primitive,” etc., but statements are not theater. Just what do we have in Old-Fashioned Prostitutes? Stunning style, no substance.
Entering the theater brings you to a marvelous bright world of bumble-bee colors — golden yellow and black — dominating in staccato rhythms: equidistant punctuations are everywhere. In terms of design, an underlying grid, overlaid with a wide variety of visual excitements, stretches from the backdrop of the stage half-way through the theater, along the walls and on overhead strings. It’s a powerful stab at a total visual experience. It’s complex (what happened to minimalist?), rich, surprising, and makes you keen for the play.
Then the play opens and from the first banalities, you realize you’ve already seen the best part. An aging man, looks back on his encounters with prostitutes in Venice, and in particular on his his ambivalent longing for one named Suzie. Raised up by his memory, Suzie vamps with a lot of European style and confidence. Her friend Gabriella is more uncertain and flapper-like winsome — finger to cheek and two cute knees pressing in to each other. Prostitution hasn’t taken a toll on either of them and their costumes are terrific.
The solipsistic philosopher George Berkeley is referred to and philosophical words are uttered. The actors are busy and vividly costumed. Nothing much happens in theatrical terms. OK, we’ve seen it: the spectacle wears thin, Emperor’s New Clothes style. The hour length of the performance seems a long time. See it for the design, just don’t expect a play. The grid design has its roots in early 20th-century Cubism. Things here make one think of a colorful old-fashioned typewriter, sound and all, exploded large. Is this all still avant garde?
The cast does a good job with the material: David Skeist (Alfredo), Stephanie Hayes (Gabriella), Alenka Kraigher (Suzie), Rocco Sisto (Samuel), Nicolas Norena (Bibendum [aka Michelin]).
Old-Fashioned Prostitutes plays at the Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through June 6.