Monday, February 23, 2009

Astronome: A Night at the Opera


By Richard Foreman and John Zorn. Directed by Richard Foreman. The Ontological-Hysteric Theater. (CLOSED)

Critics and audiences who follow Richard Foreman's annual downtown avant-stravaganzas tend to be converts to his unique theatrical vision, but there's nothing dutiful about the acolytes' praise for this year's installment, which Foreman created alongside the eclectic downtown composer John Zorn. Though the Times' Brantley doesn't feel that the two auteurs are on the same page, and most critics duly note the rock-level volume of the playback (free plugs provided for sensitive ears), most find the piece raucous and stimulating. UPDATE: George Hunka's late-coming review makes some fresh and deeply informed points.

Gothamist A
(John Del Signore) This year's Gothic baroque extravaganza is more dynamic than the past few years, in which Foreman experimented with film and a more subdued stagecraft. For now at least, he's dropped the film and picked up avant-garde composer John Zorn, who's composed a feral, heavy metal score for the show...It's a real panic, and a challenge to describe...Approached without any expectation for traditional narrative, Astronome: A Night at the Opera is as "entertaining" as any boulevard comedy, if not more so. What we have here is a taut hour of ritualistic frenzy, sans answers, and if you enjoy art that revels in what l like to call "What the fuck?" moments, you'll love this...Zorn's score is cacophonous but not abusive; if you've attended Bowery Ballroom lately you'll be fine with the volume level (though complimentary earplugs are handed out just in case).

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) The most energized and wildly fun Foreman offering in years. Gone are the mesmerizing video screens of the last three seasons; this one is all ear-pounding rock, weird voiceovers and unending manic activity by a mostly silent cast of seven. In its dense, nightmarish inventory of images, noses, fruit, wagging tongues and giant saltshakers figure prominently...Foreman is 71, but Astronome comes across as the work of a young, angry director...Who knows where this great director will head next, but wherever it is, he’s not going quietly.

Village Voice A-
(Tom Sellar) Hold on to your Viking helmets: While operatic in emotion, Zorn's recorded score doesn't aspire to that genre in any conventional sense. The human voices we hear let out orgiastic shrieks and groans, whispering, whimpering, and murmuring mysterious words and phrases. Zorn's soaring instrumentals—at rock-concert volume—move from throbbing, contemplative bass lines into raucous ecstasy. (Given Astronome's reliance on aural intensity, it's a shame we can't hear it with live musicians)...Astronome offers us what a night at the opera always should: a head rush and a quick trip to the sublime.

That Sounds Cool B+
(Aaron Riccio) Textual analysis seems a little pointless, though, given the way in which Hebrew and English letters are spiderwebbed across the set, alchemical diagrams come wheeling out, and a woman in all black (Deborah Wallace) keeps attempting to erase an already clean blackboard. It's also hard to put a straight face on actors going in and out of a giant nostril and mouth, something that seems reminiscent of Double Dare, or the long-tongued lounge "singer," a green-skinned Tony Clifton (Jamie Peterson). What's necessary, by Foreman's rules--"I don't see it, you don't see it, nobody sees it except the man stumbling upon it quite by accident"--is to just experience it. Watch the symmetrical moments, the tightly choreographed shaking and collapsing. See the blinking photo flashes, the swinging pendulum, the out-of-place bras. Listen through the throat-clearing music...His play isn't painful, nor really disturbing, and there are enough oddly wonderful and curious things to fascinate the intrepid theatergoer.

The New Yorker B+
There’s no singing in Richard Foreman’s new “opera”—a collaboration with the composer John Zorn—or dialogue, unless you count the occasional repetition of the recorded words “MendelSchwartz” and “stage fright,” or the sound of loud retching. There’s no plot or recognizable characters. There’s just seven actors in capes and dog snouts doing nonsensical things: mindlessly cleaning the wall with a pillow, pulling crumpled paper out of a giant nose with long tongs, masturbating, whipping each other, carrying around a giant snake-like object with a blow-up doll’s head. All the while, extremely loud guitar music with little or no melody shrieks and thumps in the background (ear plugs are provided). It’s an hour-long punk-rock nightmare meant (if anything is meant at all) to remind us that, though life is neither coherent nor pleasant, it can sometimes be weirdly fun.

Backstage B+
(Ronni Reich) Both Foreman and Zorn vividly bring out the work's dark themes with uncommon candor, lucidity, and depth. But together they are often overstimulating, with each one's contribution vying for focus. In its concept, hour length, and execution, Astronome is a challenging piece to experience. The show begins with a warning about volume and instructions for inserting the earplugs the company provides. While the music can only be heard and felt at full force without them, this performance is not for the faint of ear or the faint of heart.

The New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) Disconnectedness is a staple of the mind-jolting, self-contained universes that Mr. Foreman has been creating since the late 1960s. Life as presented by this enduring artist is a cosmic vaudeville show in which the material world shifts, melts and shocks...But I’m not sure that the artistic gap between what’s seen and what’s heard in “Astronome” is entirely intentional. This is the first time in my experience of Mr. Foreman’s shows at St. Mark’s Church that he has given equal billing to a collaborator. He and Mr. Zorn...may well be conceptual soul mates. But their styles never truly meld here.

Superfluities B
(George Hunka) Foreman's Ontological work has always seemed sui generis the work of an individual consciousness struggling with itself; now, though, he welcomes the aesthetic consciousness of another artist as an equal rather than an element serving a larger project. So technique and form shift to accommodate Zorn's aural vision in Astronome, and it's the sound of the play which marks its first shift. Foreman's soundscapes, as he composes them, are textured, nuanced and frequently multi-layered; Zorn, at least in his score for Astronome, utilizes loud blurts and raging rhythms – there are no Schubert songs in this production, at least none that I could recognize...Leaving the sound and much of the "language" to Zorn allows Foreman to concentrate on blocking and visual design, and here Foreman has produced his lushest visual work in years...For all that, though, it's not as satisfying a piece as Foreman's recent Ontological creations...Perhaps the most evident clue to Foreman's arm's-length distance from this provocation (a necessary distance, given Zorn's equal contribution) is that, for the first time perhaps in the 40-year history of Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric work, the director is nowhere to be found in the playing space; normally seated in the audience, running an effects board, Foreman this year absents himself from the performances, allowing the production to whir along without his metaphorical oversight...He's missed; his absence from his own consciousness in this case is disquieting.

Gothamist A 13; Time Out NY A 13; Village Voice A- 12; That Sounds Cool B+ 11; New Yorker B+ 11; Backstage B+ 11; The New York Times B 10; Superfluities B 10; TOTAL: 91/8=11.38 (B+)

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