In his 40th year of creating, Richard Foreman has yet again come up with a piece that stands out among New York’s seemingly infinite array of cultural events. In a city so oversaturated with Art with a capital A, this is no easy feat.
Foreman is the master of a very particular, very mind-altering, world-turning-upside-down type of theater. He is, essentially, what people are talking about when they describe something as “downtown” or “avant-garde.” And after spending more than half of his 70 years making weird and interesting art, the defining characteristic of his work, beyond the experimental content, is the choreographed precision of the performance and the stunningly detailed organization of people, electronics and “stuff,” as is evident in his latest, Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland. What makes this production different from a strange and scary acid trip is not the otherworldliness (he captures the mind-altering drug feeling eerily well), but rather the comforting notion that someone has infused all the weirdness with meaning, and that all the random stimuli really do fit together as a coherent whole. Most people will not grasp everything about Deep Trance, but there is solace in the fact that the performance has been intricately orchestrated and is precisely controlled by the man you smiled at on the way in (Foreman attends every night).
In the small, intimate Ontological Theatre at St. Mark’s Church, layer upon layer of image, sound, video projection and live action are at once in front of and a part of the audience. The live New York actors, some of their dress gothic inspired, including dark eye make-up and vampire teeth, perform in front of two large screens, which alternate between tableaux shot in Japan and England. The walls are covered with working clocks (telling the correct time), double-exposed Victorian photographs of living people and ghosts, a tilted china cabinet containing wine glasses, a Jewish prayer cloth and a plastic fish. From the start, the audience is hit hard with spoken ideas, written words on the screen, images, serious things, jokes, loud noises, bright lights and then softer, gentler, sleepy repetitions and a bit of live emotion. Recollections of the performance show up in the brain as bits and bites of ideas of things: “camera,” the mind pictures, “click,” “a giant Hummingbird with flags and crown,” then “shadow” — all at once. It is not an ordinary evening.
The seriousness of this madness is a recurring, self-indicating theme. “This is work,” Foreman’s voice booms in the beginning as a voice-over, and there is an awareness of the performers as working actors; they are referred to as such. As audience members, you know you have to be early if you don’t want to be locked out. You walk quickly to be early. You don’t want to miss the show. The creation of artwork that is transporting and special, at once indefinable and utterly simplistic (at its core it can only really be about the one universal experience, of course, death) is also quite unapologetically, egotistically serious business. But please, see it for yourself if you can still get tickets to the quickly selling out shows. And then take some time to talk about what you noticed and contemplate the things it made you think about or remember, because Deep Trance is, if nothing else (and it is so much more), an experience worth discussing