Richard Foreman

Teatro II Fabbricone

There was a period when throughout a large part of Europe theater entered a marriage with the visual arts. Italy, West Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, and (with a somewhat different sensibility) England and Switzerland all participated.The trend reached as far as Spain, on the one hand, and Yugoslavia on the other. The greatest stimuli came from the United States—from John Cage, Happenings, the Living Theater, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and the dance of Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Meredith Monk, and Joan Jonas; these influences worked both at long distance and in close contact, when companies traveled. While visual artists were discovering performance and the body, the theater was discovering the image, as theater artists assumed the working processes typical of contemporary visual art.

After the ’70s all this ended, and everyone returned to their respective fields of operation—theater artists to the theater, visual artists to painting and sculpture. Something had changed, however, and even now groups like Raffaello Sanzio in Cesena, Magazzini Criminali in Florence, and Falso Movimento in Naples (to name only a few of the Italian companies—others exist elsewhere, like Jan Fabre’s in Belgium) have continued in the spirit of that past time.

Foreman’s latest work relates to the productions of the above-mentioned groups more through its overall impact than through specific content, motivation, or style. Ma vie, ma mort, de Pier Paolo Pasolini (My life, my death, by Pier Paolo Pasolini), with text by Kathy Acker, frenetically interpreted by a cast whose standout performer is Kate Manheim, is a cubist decomposition of the stage space. The piece is crowded with events unrepeated in its single paroxysmal arc. The performance is anchored to the image through color (of the sets and costumes, but also of voice and sound) and to “life outside” by a narration which expands from words to gestures and objects. The speed of the representation compresses time like a spring. By the standards of Foreman’s Ontological Hysteric Theater, which demands a merger of theatrical structure with the hysterical energy it contains, the piece is an all but perfect stage machine, with difficult, virtuosic linkings and articulations, and two powerful motors—Acker’s text and Manheim’s performance.

The work’s masculine component derives from two Foreman signatures: his use of the orthogonals of the stage to order movement and the placement of objects, and his familiar strings and ropes, which stretch horizontally and vertically, both framing and breaking up the space. Each event occupies its own spatiotemporal section; it does not interfere with contiguous events, but illuminates them in the brief light of its own quick passage. The sum total has the character of a unified event, an event at first implicit, like memory, then precluded by the crystalline framework of language, of the theatrical representation. The whole is contained and rigidified. The walls of the stage block off the horizons,creating a universe at once singular and absolute.

The feminine energies of Acker and Manheim, parallel to and interacting with each other and with the stage enclosure, move in varied and sometimes opposing ways. Acker’s text is a phenomenon of culture as desire for life, for a relationship with life. As in much traditional American theater, it is crammed with depressing, provincial elements, like a highbrow soap opera. The Pasolini model becomes the basis for a series of impossible relationships—art and life, instinct and society, unconscious urges and moral goals. The banal everyday is translated into a tragic metaphor for feminine decline; American global politics and their destructive effects are described according to the moralism of late Thoreau; supposed intellectual judgment (actually no more than a new moralism) is passed on consumer culture, youth subcultures, ghetto and kitsch cultures, mass culture; memories are recalled of a difficult adolescence, which still seems preferable in its vitality to the hopeless boredom of the present. An elementary eroticism, ever negated, displaced, and repressed, remains the only impetus toward a chimerical external world which one doesn’t even dare to call the future.

Manheim’s performance pushes the delirium of the text to the limit. Hysterical, maenadic, she thrusts about, murmurs, cries, masturbates, amid the objects and props and between the conceptual lines of action and paths of movement set up by the stage space. She enlarges upon an impossibility: the realization of desire. Manheim entirely pervades this closed world—it seems created to contain her. In its futile, melancholy vitality, her character seeks to exist beyond its conceptual function in Foreman’s work.

Foreman’s 1984 is less gray than George Orwell’s, tinted as it is by the sometimes opaque, sometimes gaudy colors of pattern painting and neo-Expressionism, and with the dull objectivism of post-Modernism and contemporary technological brutality. Yet it is equally suffocating, not so much humanistically desperate as asphyxiating. Within its hermetic construction, the stage space encloses and contains a resonant, aphasiac isolation.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.