New York

Richard Foreman, Symphony of Rats

The Performing Garage

“Don’t have a mind, BE mind,” says one of the video robots in Symphony of Rats, 1988, Richard Foreman’s latest Ontological-Hysteric Theater performance piece, a co-production with the Wooster Group. Foreman’s theater has consistently embodied a manic, probing mental condition, not merely reproduced attitudes and/or statements about it. His goal has been to create a vertiginous, multisensory event in which the operations of thought are the actual subject of drama. Further, he wants to instill that particular mental condition in the viewer’s mind.

In Symphony of Rats, however, Foreman, who wrote and directed the piece and designed both sound and visuals for it, came closer than ever to making a play “about” something other than its own processes: in this case a very Nixonian president having a mental crisis, played by Ron Vawter. His thinning, combed-back hair; lawyerlike blue pinstriped suit; stiff, jerky gestures; sweaty demeanor; evasive, careering dialogue; self-pity (“Whenever I hear the word ‘sacrifice,’ I look into my mirror and say to myself, ‘How come it’s always me?’”): and weird logic (“Why go to outer space? Earth is in outer space. I am on Earth. I am already in outer space”) all marked this unnamed chief executive as Nixon-inspired.

And there was even a major gesture toward narrative: the “President” has hallucinations that are apparently beamed in from outer space. After swallowing a magic pill, he seems to be transported to an unnamed planet where he encounters two “rats,” giant puppetlike constructions that have video monitors for heads. Foreman’s face appears on the monitors, lecturing about apocalypse on planet Earth. The President is then wafted off to “Tornadoville,” where his trip becomes totally nightmarish. Returned to Earth, his mental gyrations continue until he drives away in a cupboard-size “car” that looks like a cross between a kitschy curio cabinet and a gigantic orgone box.

In Symphony of Rats, Foreman put his complex style and singular mise-en-scène in the service of this putative “story,” a shift in emphasis that only enhanced his wacky, awkward, disturbing operations. The set featured Foreman’s trademark cobwebby attic-of-the-mind look, like a funhouse designed by Piranesi and built by Rube Goldberg. With its dark paint overlay, gilded leaves, yards of black-and-white string crisscrossing overhead, and odd objects scattered about (books hanging from the microphones positioned downstage; a table setting of cups and saucers surrounding a plastic-domed clock face), it evoked a clearly defined “state”—in the dual sense of a governing apparatus and a mental condition, both on the verge of collapse.

This idea of breakdown pervaded the entire play, usually couched in terms of Foreman’s longtime dialectic between imagination and reality. After confessing that his “mental Polaroid is broken,” the President engages in a dialogue with one of the video robots, who declares that “getting a handle on reality is what most humans spend most of their time working on,” but that he prefers “the twists and turns of the human imagination.” In Foreman’s ontological analysis, reality is a social con-job; and breakdown, even at the cost of a loss of personal identity, is a moral imperative: “It’s time to relieve yourself of the belief systems you only partially believe in.” By having the President give up sober control and submit himself to imaginative chaos, Foreman (who began working in the ’60s) presents a ’60s idea recycled in ’80s terms: that imagination is the only value that can rescue us from the tyranny of an existence defined and constrained by social convention.

The idea of breakdown, as an explosion of the whole into a multiplicity of parts, was also conveyed by other aspects of Foreman’s production. This came through especially well in the soundtrack, which featured the usual blend of loud rumblings, soft music (ranging from Fritz Kreisler melodies to the ’30s jazz classic “Lullaby of Birdland”), and Foreman’s from-the-crypt voiceovers that augmented, counterpointed, and guided the performers. And the actors—ah, the actors! Drawn from the Wooster Group ensemble—no slouches in the conceptual/slapstick performance department—they added yet another full dimension to Foreman’s dizzy, dazzling mix of brain-teasing philosophizing and goofball comedy. Amazingly, the use of such specially trained performers not only did not upset Foreman’s intricate performance formula but enriched it. Symphony of Rats was one sound idea of a mind show.

John Howell