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 repertoire, 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.