New York

Richard Foreman

Public Theater

These are hard times for experimental theater and performance, what with NEA cuts, the dissolution of longstanding groups, and a tendency to jump the Modernist ship through the appropriation of accepted entertainment modes such as Broadway and cabaret. Richard Foreman’s early work was relentlessly phenomenological, experimental, uneventful; over the last ten years, however, he has gone by stages from Modernist minimalism to post-Modernist Romanticism, until today he no longer regards himself as an avant-gardist but as a classical, text-centered playwright. Yet Foreman can no more forget Modernism than he can cease being himself. Instead, he has converted it from a historicist dynamic to a classical, almost an antique, content. Brilliant fragments of the last fifty years or so of the avant-garde function for him as found objects, and he displays them like gems behind the icy surfaces of his elegant stagings.

In a sense the cutting edge of Modernist theater is the question of the arch: should the performance respect the framing function of the proscenium, or breach it and burst into the audience space? Every avant-garde cliché from Waiting for Godot to Huis Clos (No Exit) is found in Foreman’s incredibly rich and efficient Egyptology, yet the proscenium arch is firmly in place. No participation beyond passive seeing and hearing is required of the audience, which is never stressed except by occasionally being illuminated as brightly as the stage; viewers are pinned back in their seats like safe TV watchers washed in the light of the entertainment that does it all.

Meanwhile, what is happening on the stage is at once dynamic and yet safe in its post-Modernist tidiness. Egyptology unfolds through a constant interleaving and collaboration of text, sound, and lighting. The powerful sound system (with scoring by Foreman) allows the playwright as easy a control of the audience as at a rock concert. Transitions in the brilliant, fragmented text are accomplished by blasts from the speakers and lighting shifts that alter mood as if a drama were transpiring, without the tedium of unfolding the drama itself. The sound and light systems are a sophisticated machine manipulating an audience caught tightly in its grip.

The text is played out by nine players of great ability (including Kate Manheim, Seth Allen, Raymond Barry, and William Duff-Griffin). Elegantly costumed as a variety of characters from Louis XIV to a lost aviatrix, with a “chorus” of nurses and whores, they portray a dream world of beings caught up in the myth of Egypt (or “higher being”), and rehearse a collection of avant-garde lines and attitudes that are familiar yet at the same time effective. “Significance was ready to drop like a net that day,” one character says—but the net, though always close by, never falls; it is kept exquisitely hovering as characters express different senses of time and argue about which scenes have been hallucinated and which not. These thought-vignettes are presented with amazing rapidity and efficiency (partly because they are all familiar to the audience already), and when (rarely) tedium threatens, they are simply swept up in a frenzy of sound, light, and movement from which the play emerges reborn into another vignette, equally familiar, equally efficient and elegant, equally terminated by a frenzy of light and sound. Avant-gardism is treated as something no longer exactly living, but mummified with the grandeur of Tut and rendered into the most elegant museum entertainment. In a way it is like listening to familiar old stories that one doesn’t mind hearing again if they are retold well and with sufficient irony.

And indeed everything here is retold well. The production is as elegant and enthralling as a Broadway musical. The avant-garde spirit is effectively eternalized as a cherished relic of the past, as hauntingly beautiful—and as unthreatening—as a fly in amber.

Thomas McEvilley