Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty!
After a performance of writer/director Richard Foreman’s new play, my confidante and I were spotted by a mutual friend who hesitated to join us because he thought we were in a pitched argument. Cleave through to the kernel of the play, my confidante was asserting, and Foreman could have done it in half the time. I wasn’t so sure, preferring both my cake and time to eat it. The mutual friend, when he did join us, never cared for Foreman, and had no need of art showing him that life is chaotic.
If it seems that, with such reactions opening a review, the cart is being put before the horse, well, in the case of Richard Foreman that may not be a bad thing. Foreman, whose current play is in production at St. Mark’s Church through April 29th, describes himself as “Mallarméa la W.C. Fields.” The French poet’s dictum to paint not the thing, but its effect lives on in Foreman’s staged pandemonium as well as in his elusive, jabby language.
Fields read the Bible on his deathbed not to get religion, he said, but in a search for loopholes. In Foreman’s close-milked, curtly-whispered vaudeville, fruits are offered with their pits and a voice on the P.A. exhorts everybody: “When the Messiah comes, my friends, bite hard—bite very hard.”
The play’s title, Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty! is equal parts tautology and squint at the dart board of blame. Now That runs about an hour, during which time characters collapse, revive, feel dead inside. Fred (Jay Smith), his hair a flowing mane, criticizes his old friend Freddie (Tony Torn), whose locks hang seaweed limp, for looking to the past. Freddy counters that he can’t help it, he’s running on empty.
Each character has a box. Freddy’s arrives first in the mail then reappears with a crimson bow, but Fred quashes his curiosity, telling him his box contains a head. Fred feeds and walks both his favorite dog and his dead dog in black boxes, his containment less a surprise than a charade.
What a pair, as repulsed and dependent as Estragon and Vladimir. The one starts, “In the meantime,” the other echoes, “Sounds like forever to me.” One finds a face drawing near “alarming,” while to his companion the face is “charming,” and when one plumbs some intractability’s depths, his friend hears “plum” and mutters, “Mmm, that must taste good.”
They joust and threaten, chase and flee. Shadowing them is a harem who giggle and shriek, armed with killing glances and the silence that prevents language from pointing the speaker out a fool. Fred mugs haughtily towards plexiglass sheets at the lip of the stage, splits between gay-speak and vulgar tyranny. Freddy, the “unrepentant idealist,” utters asides through gaps in the smudged, reflective plexiglass hung between stage and viewers.
Tony Torn plays from inside his role with sly grace. “I feel terrible about all these unconscious people,” he announces at the get-go. The chorus is collapsed around him and the laugh’s on us. Near the play’s climax, he soliloquizes, “Oh, do not say I experience no anguish,” though the set piece lacks the underhanded wallop of an earlier mock query: “Who’s doing okay around here? Me. Still willing to give 100 percent.”
Fingers point, gunshots crack, everybody hustles offstage as the soundtrack rattles with machine gun blasts then interludes of crashing glass. Schmaltz pop, one or some or all the players return, earnest strings hint repeatedly at Pachelbel’s Canon. The intruding voice wonders what it’s going to say next, bolsters itself with “I have nothing to lose,” reassures us that “There will be no paradise on earth, my friends, please stop dreaming of a paradise on earth.”
Fred and Freddy decide that capitalism is the snide survivor of political ideology, with communism getting short shrift as another failure of the family of man. “All dogs are now dead,” the signal voice booms, adding, “I am no longer man’s best friend.” Another interruption from the rafters declares God dead, too, and after an infant’s cry, the players chant, “Here comes everybody!”—a chant that gets repeated as Freddy’s rage gains the upper hand. “Here comes everybody” resounds through Finnegans Wake, H.C. Earwicker’s sleepfest (“Hush! Caution! Echoland!”), and James Joyce’s wildly informed aversion of language. Supremely replete, joyously intractable, Wake is a fitting suggestion in the mouths of Foreman’s characters.
Late in the play, the chorus jigs back on stage wearing kiddie masks. A leering, wrinkled rubber face passes through, as do a pair of Mesopotamian steeds, and a flimsy ancient angel hangs for a moment on high. Is it that manifold birth gives way to attrition, with old age the occasional result, with wisdom more occasional still? It’s a fool’s game, reading images, and it is in an artist such as Foreman’s realm that the image stock gets jostled up, gets its predictabilities upended, its meanings released.
Richard Foreman’s Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty! is at the Ontological/Hysteric Theater (212.533.4650) through April 29th. Tickets are $15; reservations are advised.