The master of a modest sized Texas plantation has been called to fight for the Confederates and wants his slave, Hero, to come along, promising he’ll free Hero when it’s over, a promise the master has reneged on previously. Will he follow the master to war on what he knows is the wrong side, chasing the carrot of his personal freedom? Or will he stay back on the plantation and remain a slave? The master has given Hero the choice.
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.
The cast is so star studded* that it’s surprising that this production comes out no more than a serviceable Lear. But that’s still a lot: since it’s such a great play, and all the words (except for the Fool) come across with full clarity it’s a rewarding evening. You understand all the actions, motivations, and entanglements of the plot and come out feeling you have an enhanced understanding of the play. That’s worthwhile. The language seems immediate, not distant. Good. But the poetic power is damped, and the production seems disjointed.
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.
Willen Dafoe in Idiot Savant. br> Photo: Joan Marcus
Three plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney that have several characters in common, take place mainly among Blacks in Louisiana bayou country and move forward in time are billed as a Trilogy. The Brothers Size, in the center, is built around a significant conflict and is a fine one-act play. The other two are choreographed, and dramatically and aesthetically lit — there are some great effects but one senses the hyper treatment is making up for their weakness as plays. The Brothers Size, presented in a straightforward fashion, carries its own weight. McCraney writes with a fine poeteic realism throughout, and the acting in all three plays is excellent but Marc Damon Johnson as Ogun Size in The Brothers Size is monumental. The names of the characters are drawn from Yoruba gods.
This is a wonderfully open Othello, easy to enter, listen to, live with awhile with no sacrifice of Shakespeare’s language and meaning. It’s done in generalized modern dress, with TV monitors used for atmospheric slide projections placed center stage like gleaming mosaics. The actors, sometimes using cell phones, link naturalistic, current English and Shakespeare’s language so that one hears Shakespeare’s language as ones own.
The Good Negro is a fictionalized dramatization of a key moment in the civil rights struggle — Martin Luther King’s campaign to desegregate downtown Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
This play has a very strong aspect, impressive and exciting. It focuses on the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council struggling to keep their eye on the great ideal of freedom in the face of human failings — rivalries, sexual indiscretions, antagonisms, fear, betrayal — that could have derailed the campaign for a desegregated downtown Birmingham. How rare for suspense to be not just about who’s going to get killed or who’s going to be found out, although those threats are imminent, but can this group of dedicated freedom fighters overcome human weakness in service of a high ideal? I can’t think of another play or narrative that has that theme — if you can, please let me know!
You will laugh a lot at Philip Roth in Khartoum — the laughter bursts out, as in a Roth novel, from marvelous, ironic observations of vivid contemporary characters and their interactions. And it’s a joy to watch the cast’s delight in pulling the humor and emotion out of the well written dialogue. And all of that’s available for the price of a movie, because the Labyrinth Theater sees the play as a work in progress.