Richard Foreman's latest theatrical offering, Idiot Savant
(at the Public Theater through December 20) is a physical endurance test for the players and the audience, as well as an anxiety-inducing psychological attack on the minds of everyone involved. Throughout the production there is a paranoia over the predicament of existence underlying every audible noise and beat of silence, creating an atmospheric intensity that is only heightened by the maniacal elasticity of Willem Dafoe's face, which is truly the main attraction here. Essentially, this is what I could tell was going on: There are the Idiot Savant (Dafoe), his two robotic pseudo-sex interests Olga and Marie (played by Elina Lowensohn and Alenka Kraigher respectively), three fez-wearing butlers, and a giant duck, all hanging out in a uniquely appointed room somewhere, trying not to go completely mad with the silliness of it all. I think.
This play is one of those episodes of humanity deciphering its own complexities so ripe with philosophical proselytizing, deep introspection and incoherent mumbling that the material threatens to spill out over the confines of the proscenium and into the theater. One immediately wonders if this isn't why the set is designed so that the stage is literally set behind a railing; a barrier meant to protect the audience from the torture and existential hell that is inflicted upon the actors on the other side.
And while there's always a certain tendency for experimental theater to spiral out of control into mindless shock art, it can also create a space that becomes more theory and conjecture than entertainment, and Foreman's Idiot Savant
is no exception. I found that it was possible (and possibly better) to ground my experience in the sheer talent and versatility of the actors, rather than the subject material, with special attention on Dafoe (he'll win an award for this for sure) as the Idiot Savant, and the amazing care, restraint, and patience that all the players practiced in their approach to the material. Despite Foreman's impressive imagination
, and even though his attack on the senses makes watching Idiot Savant
a full body experience, the main attraction here is the acting.
Foreman is very concerned about his audience, or at least concerned with putting and keeping them in a constant state of distress. The cluttered set, laced with criss-crossing metal wires strung out over the heads of the audience like tight ropes, as well as the hulking padded doors numbered 1 through 4 on the stage (the 5 is painted across the middle of the floor), create a feeling that one hasn't so much been invited into the theater to see a play, but rather locked into the padded room and forced to watch. (It becomes hard to tell if the rail at the front is there to protect us from the actors or protect the actors from us.) The rest of the set is filled out with large line drawings of very creepy English-looking folks, windows that go no where, a couple of clocks, a large cabinet and numerous liquor dispensers (marked with the requisite XX), all creating the feeling that we've just walked into a Poe story as imagined by Dali.
There is also an incredibly clear and booming sound system, which Foreman utilizes in disquieting ways, repeating recorded screams and crashes over and over again, as well as incorporating raucous thumping techno interludes as the Savant dances seductively (I never knew Dafoe could high kick like that), blindfolded, with pillows over his ears before us. Couple this aural assault with the ten or so mega-watt halogen lamps overhead, that can be trained on the audience at a moment's notice in a temperature-raising flood of light, and it's clear that Foreman wants to make you sweat (literally) in your seat and isn't satisfied with relying on stirring your emotions to do so. It made me want a blindfold and pillows of my own.
This is not to say that Foreman's play doesn't stir a multitude of emotions in the viewer, but the material is haphazard, vague and hard to follow, if it's meant to truly be followed at all, with the players' lines purposefully diluting at times into murmurs and mumbles before they can finish a thought. The autistic nature of the Savant gets a little annoying at times, but I suppose this is another trope aimed at lowering the comfort level of the people watching. Again the actors make the watching bearable, as it becomes less and less important to hear what they're saying as opposed to watching how they say it. There is no way to comment on the plot, or the device that moves the audience from point A to point B: There is none, because there is no A or B.
This is nothing new with this type of theater, but Foreman addresses the lack of a linear structure directly with a superbly refreshing and acidic self-parody in the form of a disembodied voice (sounding strangely like a demonic Hitchcock with a mouth full of marbles after a night of drinking) stating very early in the play that the players should not actually try to move this play foreword in any way, and rather just let it wallow in self-proclaimed failure as a dramatic piece. This is the same voice that glacially lists every single physical object that the audience will see during the course of the performance as the lights go down (I counted roughly 32 items after I realized what was happening), and the voice that frequently breaks in to give "A Message to the performers," or counts the beats of silence (which aren't actually silence anymore then, are they?).
Foreman, it seems, wants us to know that he is not trying to put something past us, or pass something off as real when it is not, and this idea only serves to make the reactions of the audience all the more interesting. I noticed two walkouts on the night I saw the show, but I shook my head in bewilderment as to why. Yes, I was very uncomfortable, and hot, and my chair was too small, but I would have sat there with my feet in a bucket of ice water (that might have been nice, actually, after the lamps) to watch Dafoe and the other players in action.
The Idiot Savant enters the stage holding a stuffed duck in a golden cage (a smaller version of the giant duck that shows up later), a pacifier in his mouth, his hair tied into a puffy pony tail at the top of his head, wearing a black velvet kilt, ruffled white shirt, backwards yellow tie, and shiny black clown shoes, with high white socks held up by garters. He's being followed by three butlers of varying weights and heights each wearing a fez and tuxedo, and aiming arrows tipped with red golf balls at the Savant, as Marie watches in mock horror wearing a velvet green gown (think Princess Fiona's dress
). Dafoe proceeds so slowly from the back of the stage, he barely seems to move at all; his pigeon-toed march forward is made acutely frightening by the look of concentration on his face: he has already begun to sweat and the familiar furrow in his brow has become a canyon between his eyes. The rising sound of a screeching violin brings the picture into hypertension as the whole dance lasts for close to a minute and half, but feels like an hour. It was experimental theater bliss.
And this is only the first 3 minutes of the play. Trying to recount all the crazy shit that happens afterward in any logical sense would be nearly impossible and produce a life-ending migraine, but suffice it to say that Dafoe battles with the Savant and his musings like a mad bull fighting for its life, with Marie and Olga egging him on and trying to make him desist all at the same time. Dafoe's face is a joy to watch as he switches between emotions in flickering instances, like Foreman is turning a big "Acting" knob on his back, each new look perpetuating a different mask and almost a wholly different character.
There is one point, after a particularly nonsensical moment of crazy sound effects leaves the players wandering around the stage confused, that Dafoe remarks, in a barely audible voice: "Is this face of mine real, or simply a thing that whispers at crucial moments?" Whoa. Say what you will about sense and nonsense, but this is a very deep question, not only for the play, but also for an actor who has made a career on the amorphous pound of flesh that is the folds of his visage. In an interview on WNYC
this same type of question is raised when Leonard Lopate asks who the real Dafoe is. "That's always a good question for me," Dafoe responds, "who that is." But again, no answer is given and we are left to wonder if Dafoe even really knows himself.
Still, Foreman gets a little contrived at times, like as the disembodied Hitchcockian voice-of-Foreman-as-God booming from heaven, ultimately emanates from the giant Hellraiser
-evoking Pinhead look-alike duck. This figure proceeds to show us its stigmata, as the Savant cries out: "My God! A duck!", which could be a standard expletive taking the lord's name in vain, or a declaration of worship: did the Savant really cage an effigy of his God? There is never a moment when Dafoe loses his drive or concentration, in effect moving the production forward even as Foreman tries to make it stall out.
In what some refer to as post-dramatic theater (why we simply just can't call it avant-garde anymore baffles me), realm that Foreman has occupied, or ruled over, depending on who you ask, for the last half century or so, the playwright, with the help of his actors, has reached a new height with Savant
that is simultaneously infuriating and wonderful. It's hard to say if Foreman generated 80 minutes of successful material from the mere idea of the Savant (one could remove any twenty minute chunk with relatively little detriment to the overall effect), but the surreal set, the frantic techno music interludes and dance sequences, and the wholesale obliteration of any pretense of narrative continuity by the disembodied voice of a gigantic duck, commenting on the production and essentially giving stage directions, creates an experience that's well worth the discomforts inflicted. Add Dafoe's performance as the Savant into this heady mix and you have what could be the culmination of the playwright's oeuvre, and a defining moment for the actor, whose talent seems stretched to its very limits, but never less than up to the task.
At the very end of the play (spoiler alert), although one has no idea its the end at the time, Dafoe stops rambling mid-sentence and remarks with a casual smile that he forgot something and exits stage left. He sprints back in a moment later, wraps himself in the red curtain and falls to the floor, with only the lower half of his body and costume visible to the audience. The halogen bulbs go up, audibly, and the brilliant revelation of all the immediate surfaces of everything in the theater only serves to deepen the mystery behind everything we have just witnessed, as the disembodied voice says unceremoniously that the play is over and you should get out, and one of the butlers appears by the exit and commands everyone to leave. You try to clap at Dafoe's motionless legs protruding under the curtain, but Foreman denies us that fulfillment as well. Instead, the audience is left feeling a bit like a bunch of idiots themselves.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)