New York

Richard Foreman

La Mama E.T.C.

In Richard Foreman’s latest production, Eddie Goes to Poetry City, 1991, the protagonist takes off on a metaphorical roller-coaster ride to a mythical destination (where “poetry melts language”), with the audience strapped in tightly behind him. On the way all kinds of words, women, and objects—not to mention buckets full of existential angst—are thrown across his path. The moment the signal is given to start the action, the audience begins to count up the objects that characteristically litter the Foreman stage, to mark off, like a silent kitchen timer, how much longer you have to go to the end (a row of clocks on the far wall, set to real time, makes this task easier). Not surprisingly, Eddie tries to escape, but even this he does with mortifying self-consciousness. “Why is everyone looking at me?” he asks. Because “you’re in a play,” the good doctor answers, and the taped voice, not content to leave well enough alone, quibbles, “If this were a play, a room would be visible into which one projects one’s imagination.”

If these quarrelsome exchanges sound familiar, it is because many of them could have been lifted directly from any number of Foreman’s earlier theatrical works that have begged the same questions regarding the theater’s ability to provoke real thought. The fast pace of the banter, bell ringing, and electronic buzzing are all designed to make the audience dizzy, and Foreman always tests to see who is really listening. “Eddie, are you really paying attention?” he asks, as much of Eddie as of the audience. Foreman’s special brand of doublespeak sets the tone; first the actors speak, then Foreman (on tape) says what they are really thinking, then they (no longer so sure) say what they think he thinks they should say, and so on. Foreman is less argumentative here, and he interrupts his performers less frequently than he has done in the past. As a result, a narrative emerges—of a man, two lovers, his analyst, and an office party—and Eddie meanders through this intellectual obstacle course at a more meditative pace. With time on his hands, he reveals a vulnerable, even a simple side; he talks about God, art, love, and his notion that life “wobbles.” In the end, he is actually allowed to have opinions of his own. “Right. Completely, totally, right,” the taped voice concedes.

For those who were initiated into Foreman’s personal language back in the ’70s, when Conceptual art was in full swing, this work has a ghostly way of conjuring up those times. Indeed, Foreman’s wonderful custom-built shoe box of a stage, complete with windowless curtains and doors to nowhere, functions like a time bubble; though his actors wear ’30s dress and haircuts, and the rickety sets smack of Coney Island (is this the Poetry City that Eddie seeks?), this work is really another window into Foreman’s brain. Since he first turned his loft into a theater where his company, The Ontological-Hysteric Theater performed from 1968–76, his practice has constituted an ongoing search for the Holy Grail, which in his case represents the highest possible plane of intellectual existence.

All these years later, Foreman’s theater seems to have remained untouched by the media-obsessed ’80s or by changes in the political or economic weather. While audiences during that time have apparently lost their attention span for verbal puzzles, and while talk of cultural illiteracy only confirms this communication gap, Foreman is as committed as ever to transforming the mundane into the extraordinary. There are signs here that he may be changing direction, however, for just as Eddie discovers that Poetry City is really much closer to home than he thought, so too Foreman’s new work suggests that the mundane can, in fact, be extraordinary.

RoseLee Goldberg