New York

Richard Foreman

Ontological Theater, St. Mark’s Church

While it would be sheer folly to try to synopsize Richard Foreman’s latest dramatic effort, one might offer—as one character terms it—an “obvious gloss.” In I’ve Got the Shakes, 1995, the author/director continues to stage pure perception, placing cognition itself onstage. Foreman loves ideas unabashedly, reads theory voraciously, and has no qualms about using the theater as a laboratory for his mental somersaults.

I’ve Got the Shakes centers on the doleful, self-sabotaging Madeleine X (superbly played by Jan Leslie Harding). While Foreman’s scenic semiotics have remained fairly consistent in his last few offerings (checkered strings bisecting the playing area, flashes of bright light, floors littered with legal pads), as have the aural (tape loops of demented skating-rink music, punctuated by buzzers and bells), his central characters seem to be becoming more unhinged. One senses that Madeleine X gets the shakes just by breathing. She seems, like the audience, distracted by the mesmerizing spirals, puzzled by the Hebrew letters on the wall . . . perhaps the first Foreman character who is likely to tidy up the stage. While Foreman’s major concerns remain the dichotomies of representation and interpretation, of image and reality, I’ve Got the Shakes may signal a tremor in a new direction: while flexing his mind around the Platonic forms, Foreman may be leaning toward a narrative style that is—even in the tiniest quiver—indebted to the Aristotelian.

From the beginning, Madeleine X—chic in her thigh-high black vinyl boots, though her slip is showing—seems a forlorn substitute teacher for Foreman’s Professor in My Head Was A Sledgehammer, 1994. Sentenced to reality in the Rose Room—notably absent of roses, as student Lola Mae Dupray (Mary McBride) points out—Madeleine finds it “hard to touch base (on) gentle mother earth,” choosing instead to derive some momentary comfort from fish-flavored Popsicles or some “very rare drug” (one that, finally, doesn’t do anything). In fact, the addiction of choice in I’ve Got the Shakes is the Real. Trouble is, she’s got to teach something about something, whether it’s that “we prefer mystification to clarity as an escape from reality,” or just pure mystification qua mystification. What’s a gal to do?

Amidst cordons of faux pearls, these characters cut their teeth on wisdom, allowing Foreman to question every sense-making schema: solipsism (“I’m in the only universe there is”), language (“I have nothing to say . . . haven’t I proven it in retrospect?”), and, especially, empirical evidence (one character, Rabbi Schlomo, actually seems woozier from the injection of drugs he gives Madeleine than she does, noting that “not everything is explainable”). Given his predilection for the Platonic, Foreman plays with masks and mirrors, and even some shadows (Madeleine tries to project a bunny rabbit on the wall) in his cave on East Tenth Street. In fact, the pull of ideal forms wreaks havoc everywhere: characters try to sit on balloon-backed chairs painted on canvases, fall on the floor (naturally), and mutter “God, God, God” . . . in front of a totemic, quasiPolynesian mask. Madeleine’s longing for real knowledge causes her to actually hit her head with a hammer, even as she laments “this is really too painful.”

Finally, what may be most neo-Platonic of all was the “Warning” notice about the NEA’s defunding, enclosed in every program. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the new mimesis-police really believe that what’s good for the Republicans is good for the Republic. With so few theater auteurs around asking the big presence/absence questions, imagining the performance landscape without the presence of Richard Foreman frankly gives me the shakes.

Steve Drukman