Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Richard Foreman

Review | Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance) | Written, Directed and Designed by Richard Foreman | Presented in Association with Ontological-Hysteric Theater | Public Theater

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.

Review | Idiot Savant Starring Willem Dafoe | Written, Directed and Designed by Richard Foreman | Public Theater | In Association with Ontological-Hysteric Theater

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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