Thursday, November 5, 2009

Idiot Savant

GRADE: Big Duck

Written and directed by Richard Foreman. Public Tehatre. (CLOSED)

If ever there was a theatre that confounds all critical standards, Richard Foreman's staged scramblings at the Ontological-Hysteric are it. Like the Wooster Group, Foreman's projects are best judged against themselves. With this understanding, together with speculation that this may be Foreman's "swan song," most critics approach Idiot Savant (starring Wooster pioneer Willem Dafoe) from the vantage of his earlier work to judge the production as either derivative (of Foreman, natch) or a superb refinement of the lavish absurdity they've come to expect (NYTimes). A capsule summary of the content would be futile here. "You either get it or you don't," is a common statement among the critics that risks flattening all judgment into the dreary C-grade category and only reminds the Critic-O-Meter that a grade, like a plot summary, will be of little use to prospective ticket-buyers. "Typically audacious" (NYPost) may be the most depressing description I've ever read, but all of the reviewers below are worth reading in full because they each single out a different phrase or image that resonates with them. This rich diffusion of response is the best indicator of overall success when it comes to Foreman because it validates his spirit of inexhaustible stageplay.

The New York Times A+
(Ben Brantley) ... in the self-contained universes of Mr. Foreman, which are both boundless and hermetically sealed, all performers are created equal, right? They are stylish robots, carrying out the commands of a dictatorial auteur. People don’t so much act in Mr. Foreman’s productions (which he has been creating for five decades now) as take orders, the better to embody their director’s convoluted currents of thought. The happy surprise of “Idiot Savant” is that there is, for once, an actor in the house. Mr. Dafoe, who spent many years working as a team player of the avant-garde Wooster Group, knows how to pose in a living painting where individual figures count for less than the landscape. But he also brings a star’s bright idiosyncrasy to Mr. Foreman’s wonderland and the aching throb of an energetic man in a straitjacket. There’s warm blood coursing through “Idiot Savant,” and it raises the humor and humanity to heights rarely felt in a Foreman work ... I worried (because I’ve seen it happen before) that outside its customary lair the Foreman magic might disintegrate, like a mummy wrenched from its tomb. Instead this change of venue has inspired Mr. Foreman to loosen up and expansively and cheerfully consider the nature and consequences of practicing the dark art of theater ... Mr. Dafoe, Ms. Kraigher and Ms. Löwensohn perform such dialogue with delicious relish and a conviction that is all the more entertaining for being so changeable. And while remaining obediently and exaggeratedly archetypal, they also exude a winning, particular sense of frustration that comes from being ensnared in this play and, by extension, this life.

The New Yorker A
(Hilton Als) The term “idiot savant”—an autistic or otherwise mentally handicapped person who has one area of genius—is never defined in Foreman’s text, but Dafoe plays one to the hilt. And so, in a way, does Foreman. With this show, he is telling us that he has done one thing—amazingly—for more than forty years: he has made theatre that has changed the theatre. Now it may be time for something else. Foreman has said that “Idiot Savant” is his last play, that he will concentrate on making films. One can only hope that this is a lie of the mind.

Time Out New York A
(David Cote) Idiot Savant is vintage Foreman: ravishing, perplexing, scary, a sensual and intellectual massage for those weary of causality and psychology ... Willem Dafoe takes center stage in the title role, fully exploiting decades with the Wooster Group to endow his cryptic pronouncements and slapstick with pathos and visceral intensity. Knowing and sexy Elina Löwensohn and Alenka Kraigher alternately tempt and thwart Dafoe as a gypsy and a princess, respectively. Foreman’s language—highly compressed and suggestive, if superficially banal—comes alive in these superb actors’ voices (intimately picked up by head mikes). You realize how much you’ve missed him working with trained, charismatic performers. A
(Matt Roberson) Why speak to us directly, acknowledging our presence both vocally and with the spotlight, if on some level, Foreman doesn't see us as shareholders in this timeless show? But lest one think all hope is lost in this almost nightmarish world, Foreman does provide a splinter of hope with this: "I correct myself slightly—since human never translates into 'TOTAL' SATISFACTION—only a bit MORE SATISFACTION in comparison." Adding beautifully creative and thought-provoking support to the world of Idiot Savant are the costumes of Gabriel Berry. Also adding layers to the already numerous layers of this exciting production are the lighting of Heather Carson, and the sound design of Travis Just. Unlike most theatre these days, Idiot Savant, as I assume is true of much of Foreman's work, leaves its audience with more questions than answers. Its unique and original nature, while almost never crystal clear, forces us to think, and see, in ways rarely required by traditional narrative. Idiot Savant is not theatre for everyone, but for those who are, at times, bored with an all-too-often conventional form, we should be grateful that people like Foreman continue to exist.

Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) Willem Dafoe is fascinating as the Idiot Savant. Dressed in Samurai-inspired skirts, paired with gartered white hose, his hair pulled into a defiant topknot, Dafoe alternately glides, charges and tumbles about the stage ... The ladies are well-played by Alenka Kraigher as the ethereal, taunting Marie, and Elina Lowensohn as the cynical, snappish Olga ... Production elements that enhance the disquiet include blasts of light by Heather Carson, and jolting bursts of music designed by Travis Just. Yet the anxiety is lightened by humorous dialogue and a visual sense of fun, including ducks and spiders. At one point, Olga exclaims, "I hope this is all nonsense." ... Images from the play may recur afterward in flashbacks, reinforcing themes while raising more questions. What can we learn from the Idiot Savant — or Little Miss Muffet — about danger and desire? Maybe nothing, but you can always ask the giant duck.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) Richard Foreman’s play at The Public Theater’s Martinson Hall, produced in association with Foreman’s own Ontological-Hysteric Theater, is an all-out assault on the idea that either language or life can ever be precisely quantified, so you may as well just contribute when you can, shut up when you can’t, and enjoy the ride the rest of the way. That battle plan is also the most effective method of dealing with the production itself, which is fulfilling and entertaining but, like much of Foreman’s work, makes more sense in the broader view than it does in any up-close inspection ... The performances are all emphatic, precisely focused and yet restless in the best possible way, with Dafoe a dreamlike avatar of sensibility stumbling amid Kraigher’s stately acceptable weirdness and Löwensohn’s too-earthy order. The confusion in which they’re trudging is palpable, yes - but how often are concepts and words completely compatible, anyway? Idiot Savant contends that “All things are yet thinkable inside a powerful mind, which does express itself eventually in apparent babble, non translatable into known languages,” and if that describes Foreman’s art, both here and in general, you never have to worry about being lost altogether. Foreman is a master of ruling over his worlds with an authoritative hand, so there’s no shortage of cohesion even if you may not always be sure what specific brand of adhesive is holding everything together.

Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) One has to watch out for certain dangers in Foreman's world, of course, most of which turn up in his new piece, Idiot Savant (Public Theater). Although the place is a purely mental landscape, demarcated as always by black-and-white striped strings, harsh lights may confront your eyes or sudden loud explosions assault your ears ... Dafoe registers ably, or should I say Foremanfully, on this long and distinguished list: Will Patton, James Urbaniak, David Patrick Kelly, Tom Nelis, T. Ryder Smith, and Rocco Sisto rank among his notable predecessors in the Foremanian Hall of Fame.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) This latest opus, starring Willem Dafoe, is a typically audacious, surreal extravaganza that will either delight or baffle theatergoers, maybe both at the same time. "Message to the performers," a voice intones at the start. "Do not try to carry this play forward. Let it slowly creep over the stage with no help, with no end in view." Indeed, some might find the proceedings interminable. This metaphysical exercise about the nature of art and language features, among other things, a game of interspecies golf with a giant duck. You either go with it, or you don't ... As the women who alternately provoke and encourage the idiot savant, Alenka Kraigher and Elina Lowensohn fulfill their duties with the appropriate stylization. But the big draw, of course, is Dafoe. What a pleasure to see him once again perform onstage with no holds barred.

Variety B
(Marilyn Stasio) Since when has Richard Foreman been so grand -- and ever so elegantly French? ... Symbolically functional or not, the chandeliers look snazzy, as do Gabriel Berry's svelte costumes for the two female characters -- a richly detailed gown for Marie (the ethereally lovely Alenka Kraigher), who asks the most penetrating questions in this piece, and a jaunty riding outfit for Olga (the smart and snappish Elina Lowensohn), who goes around puncturing everyone's well-reasoned assumptions. The only person who seems strangled by his costume is the Idiot Savant (a scowling Willem Dafoe), whose all-too-human role is to try to make sense of the conundrums flung at him like weapons by the unseen Voice of the godlike director. It's a losing battle, made manifest by the absurdity of his costume -- a warrior-knot and samurai-like robes over pigeon-toed shoes -- and the frailty of his human nature. Whether thought of as tricks or games, the mental skirmishes are par for the Foreman course.

New York Magazine B-
(Stephanie Zacharek) [Foreman] has also fashioned a plotless work that manages to be at once playful, pretentious, and intentionally confounding—the kind of arch exercise in which characters routinely drop Zen-koan head-scratchers like “If solving a mystery is never possible, then don’t call that a mystery.” Foreman’s works aren’t designed to make literal sense as you’re watching them. The scraps you take away from his elaborate in-jokes may eventually reshape themselves into a meaningful treatise on the futility of existence—or they may leave you with nothing more than a handful of air. The one concrete thing here is the pleasure Foreman’s actors—including Alenka Kraigher, as a sort of soothsayer in a velvet medieval-princess dress, and Elina Löwensohn, a hard-drinking tough cookie in a shiny Cossack’s outfit—take in this wackadoo material. Dafoe, his crazy topknot aquiver, may be having the most fun of all. There’s comedy in his eyes and murder in his soul. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Entertainment Weekly C+
(Thom Geier) The performers are certainly game. Alenka Kraigher plays Marie, who alternately cringes from Dafoe and pines for him in gawky, loose-limbed way, like a blond Olive Oyl. And as a femme fatale in riding pants named Olga, Elina Löwensohn (Schindler's List) looks and speaks like a seemingly disinterested Garbo. But the show itself never builds to real insights, or follows any of its musings to any meaningful conclusions. And even if the elusiveness of meaning is the play's raison d'etre, I wish that the absurd high jinks were more diverting. If you're going to bring out a giant duck wearing a fez, shouldn't he at least juggle or something.

Theatermania C+
(Dan Balcazo) "I am interested in confusion," says the title character of downtown auteur Richard Foreman's Idiot Savant, now at the Public Theater. And indeed, the often frustrating piece on view may puzzle audience members, despite a stellar central performance from Willem Dafoe. The actor -- who cut his teeth on experimental performance prior to finding fame on the big screen -- plays the Idiot Savant within the show. His magnetic stage presence serves him well, as he moves with alternating slow and quick movements while growling some of his lines and shouting others. His is a nuanced and physically demanding performance that is consistently engaging, even if you're not always sure what he's supposed to be doing ... Moreover, despite the stylish presentation, there are several moments that seem to try too hard to be profound and instead merely come across as tiresome. Those who have seen any of Foreman's prior work are sure to recognize many of the writer/director/designer's signature devices: strings and other thin obstacles are placed between actor and audience; loud buzzing noises are heard; bright lights flood the stage; and voice-overs repeat certain phrases over and over again. Such techniques may have once served to challenge the passivity of the spectator, but now seem somewhat clichéd.

Lighting & Sound America C
(David Barbour) Watching Idiot Savant, which is a veritable archive of vintage avant-garde tropes, I suddenly had a vision of Foreman as a kind of downtown Neil Simon, plugging away at his vision, never mind that the world has moved on ... Of course, a critic like Ben Brantley -- who isn't all that concerned about drama, anyway -- thinks he's great, but a surprising number of thoughtful minds have found much to praise in Foreman's work. It must be a trick of the light -- all I can see is a series of gestures left over from those feverish days when every performance was a self-conscious act of provocation against the audience ... in truth, the set, by Foreman with an assist from Peter Ksander -- it's a kind of cartoon of an English great house with a touch of Edward Gorey about it -- is an amusingly shifty place. (It grows and shrinks, as required.) Heather Carson's lighting, as always, is endlessly inventive, making use, as it does, of all sorts of oddball instruments. (Well, I didn't love the blinder cues, but that's part of the Foreman playbook.) Travis Just's sound design is more like a sinister soundtrack of cues that often have little or nothing to do with the action onstage; again, he's serving the director, and he does it well. Gabriel Berry's costumes cleverly mix and match styles from many different periods.

On Off Broadway C
(Matt Windman) Don't even bother trying to make sense of a Richard Foreman production. For decades, the famed avant-garde director-playwright has proceeded totally by impulse to create silly, surreal, purely theatrical spectacles based in movement, light and sound instead of traditional storytelling. You simply can't figure out his shows by using your brain ... It's impossible to determine what exactly is going on based on the show itself. But in recent interviews, Foreman has described "Idiot Savant" as a philosophic comedy in which the mystical Idiot Savant (played by Willem Dafoe) contemplates the power of language and parodies how people think. For some inexplicable reason, there is also a "Giant Duck" with bloody palms who plays interspecies golf ... If not much else, "Idiot Savant" offers a final opportunity to experience the experimental weirdness of a Richard Foreman show. Though his silliness can occasionally be entertaining, don't expect to understand any of it. Think of it a distinctive, intense, offbeat avant-garde experience. If you're lucky, maybe you'll find some meaning hidden somewhere in this 80-minute circus.

Backstage D
(David Sheward) You either get Richard Foreman or you don't—and I'm in the latter camp. For more than 40 years, the founder and director of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater has been unleashing his unique brand of theatrical mayhem, collecting Obie Awards by the bushel and enrapturing or confounding audiences. His latest effort, "Idiot Savant," is just as bizarre and perplexing as any of his 50-odd other plays. The one element that may draw non–Foreman cultists is the presence of Willem Dafoe, an Oscar nominee with roots in the avant-garde theater. Dafoe, a founding member of the Wooster Group, has collaborated with Foreman before and brings a gritty reality to the obscure goings-on. He really appears to be going through a crisis, but what it is or why it's important is never addressed ... Kraigher and Löwensohn are attractive performers and, like Dafoe, they manage to convey a sense of character and purpose, but obviously Foreman is not interested in conventional narrative or motivation. He has his own unique style and aesthetic, which has resulted in previous works of intriguing beauty. There are brief moments of bizarre whimsy here, but this piece is so deliberately obscure and abstract, I was totally lost and didn't care about anyone or anything on stage. An offstage voice, probably representing Foreman, intones at the top of the play: "Message to the performers: Do not try to carry this play forward. Let it slowly creep over the stage with no help, with no end in view." Unfortunately, the cast carries out the writer-director's intentions, and "Idiot Savant" drags itself pointlessly along to an unsatisfying conclusion.

New York Times A+ 14; New Yorker A 13; Time Out New York A 13; A 13; AP A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; Village Voice B+ 12; NYPost B+ 12; Variety B 10; NY Magazine B- 9; EW C+ 8; TheatreMania C+ 8; Light&Sound America C 7; OnOffBroadway C 7; Backstage D 4. TOTAL: 156/15 = 10.4 (B)

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