Richard Foreman Meets Nietzsche

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Bad Boy Nietzsche! By Richard Foreman Consider the case of a remarkable man: awkwardly shy, a bit saturnine, with a glum mustache and a pronounced philosophical bent?whose inner life is so fertile, so turbulent with rich activity, that the routine continuum of ordinary life often depresses him, sending him retreating into himself. A polite, even chivalrous man whose personal gentleness contrasts starkly with the occasionally fierce creative work he produces to wrest himself from his own head. A man whose work, eloquent even in its ferocity, originates in jotted-down thoughts that he collects into musically conceived, aphoristic texts that are often quoted out of context by others to prove almost any crudely iconoclastic point the quoter wishes. A passionate man with a knack for astonishingly physical and sensual imagery who nevertheless leaves himself vulnerable to criticism about his representations of women. Foreman's incarnation of Nietzsche is, as much as anything else, an alter ego of himself. There is no rigor or straightforward discursive intention to the biographical comparison, the quotes are from poems and letters peripheral to the major books and none of the suggested affinities propels the protagonist's emotional journey. Bad boy Foreman seems to have viewed the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Nietzsche's death primarily as personal material: an impetus to refine?this time with quasi-historical means?his signature seriocomic question, "How does one live a vivid life in a disorienting and mind-deadening world?"

    Some observers have said that Bad Boy Nietzsche! is unusual for Foreman because of its explicit allusion to an historical figure. (Only one other Foreman piece, George Bataille's Bathrobe, contains such a reference in its title.) To me, though, the only significant departure here is the opening action (about the first 15 of 70 minutes), which is atypically relaxed, calm and forthrightly narrative to the point of bifurcating the piece. The action in this section even seems internally motivated, as if the great theorist of "ontological hysteria" had suddenly made strange, precarious peace with method acting.

    Gary Wilmes enters as Nietzsche, playful, personable and genially abstracted, hugging a briefcase and wearing a sleeping cap and long black robe. He is confronted, quietly and realistically, by a Child (Sarah Louise Lilley in a black cap and white shirt with black tie?she looks like a Russian student and acts like a flirtatious pixie) and a Cruel Man (Kevin Hurley in boots and a short plaid skirt strangely affixed at chest level, speaking in deep, sinister tones). Accompanied at times by a silent, lugubrious chorus of four men in black aprons and fezzes with Hasidic side curls (who wield scourges, pick up Nietzsche's impishly tossed papers and perform other obscure menial tasks), the Cruel Man expresses hostile disinterest, but the Child says, "I imagined you big and strong, with eyes on fire. Is it possible?maybe you aren't the real Mr. Nietzsche."

    This child proposes testing his identity by beating one of the upholstered horses planted onstage amid the clutter of skulls, pillows, lamps, letters and other typically Foremanesque bric-a-brac (a shooting gallery upstage completes the impression of a nightmarish gothic amusement park). The reference (as explained in the program) is to the variously reported incident in 1889 in which the real Nietzsche suffered his final descent into madness after rushing to protect a horse being beaten on the street in Turin. Foreman twists this incident every way imaginable, using it as his central motif. A horse (particularly in the form of a child's hobbyhorse) is an inappropriate vessel for a mature man's passionate effusions, and the play's main conflict becomes Nietzsche's reluctance to come down from his lofty "transvalued" mental universe and risk direct, sensual contact with other human beings.

    A sudden shift from the slow quasi-realism to Foreman's usual frenetic pace and loopy, stagy style occurs when this sexually stunted "bad boy" ("I have this appendage?on the front of my body?it swells up sometimes") encounters a topless Beautiful Woman?played by Juliana Francis, appearing in the shooting gallery. This female figure (who is also fully dressed at times) seems based on a very loose conflation of Nietzsche's fatuously opportunistic sister Elisabeth and Lou Salome, the woman he loved but never slept with. Speaking in a vague foreign accent, she teases him, insults him with names like "shithead" and deliberately misconstrues his words in a manner that recalls the Nazis' misuse of the real Nietzsche's books. (He: "There are jewels, valuable jewels in this holy bread." She: "There are Jews in this bread.")

    On top of all this, the Cruel Man repeatedly smashes the back of Nietzsche's chair with a golf club, and numerous abrupt and anomalous "surprises" occur involving cartoonish fish, feet, cake, a cutout giant and a large riveted box (called "this ugly thing") that resembles both a tank and a film camera. In general Foreman's tactical madness serves as a fascinating frame for reflection on Nietzsche's actual madness. The net impression is of a conspiracy to force the hero into some meaningful rapport with his body. With both women topless at one point, he bares his own genitals and then wanders around clueless about what else he might do under the circumstances.

    As mentioned before, though, the question that has always lent Foreman's cerebral circus a certain melancholy gravity also lays just beneath the surface of this action. "Shipwreck!" "Shipwreck!" his voice growls repeatedly over loudspeakers, as if to wrench our attention momentarily away from Nietzsche's particular story and refocus it on whatever totemic "horses" he, or the rest of us, may be on the brink of madly embracing. As the philosopher himself wrote in one of his saner delusory moments: "For art to exist, for any sort of esthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication? The man in this condition transforms things until they mirror his power?until they are reflections of his perfection."

    Ontological Theater at St. Mark's Church, 131 E. 10th St. (2nd Ave.), 533-4650, through April 30.

    Fuddy Meers By David Lindsay-Abaire Fuddy Meers, the play by David Lindsay-Abaire originally produced at Manhattan Theater Club last fall, recently opened for a commercial run at Minetta Lane Theater. An appealing and cleverly unpredictable comedy about a woman with "psychogenic amnesia" (meaning she forgets her entire past each morning), it is worth seeing for the first-rate performances by J. Smith-Cameron, Marylouise Burke, Keith Nobbs and John Christopher Jones. The play itself is full of snappy dialogue and amusing twists but contains, alas, little original vision. Lindsay-Abaire is young, a recent graduate of the Juilliard Playwriting Program, and his play strongly recalls the weaker work of his former teacher, Christopher Durang. It establishes a wonderfully absurd situation, juggles its various illogical balls with amazing finesse for a while, but then chickens out by explaining everything.

    As soon as Claire (Smith-Cameron's role) awakens in the first scene, a terrific atmosphere of uncertain placidity is established that keeps the audience as uncertain as Claire is about the truth of what is said?for a while, at any rate. You get to wonder whether the kind man in surgical pants who brings her coffee really is her husband, for instance, and whether the Limping Man who crawls out from beneath her bed (ostensibly to help her escape) really is her brother. The best uncertainty-game of all is a by-product of the most inspired comic creation: Claire's mother Gertie (marvelously played by Burke), who acts as though she's making perfect sense even though her mixed-up speech following a stroke is almost wholly unintelligible. ("Fuddy meers" is her pronunciation of "funny mirrors.")

    Eventually all the magnificent weirdnesses are neatly nailed down, with an irritatingly topical "battered-woman" trauma-scenario providing the final hammer-blow. Lindsay-Abaire was apparently too preoccupied with tv-movie-style cleverness to think through the full implications of the living hell of serial beginnings he conceived. It may be unreasonable to expect the courage of a Samuel Beckett in a young American writer ("another heavenly day"), but with the marvelous example of Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day still fresh in memory, my hopes still run a bit higher than Fuddy Meers.

    Minetta Lane Theater, 18 Minetta Ln. (betw. 6th Ave. & MacDougal St.), 307-4100, through April 20.