Symphony of Rats
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 7, 2006
In the '30s there was a director/actor/producer/showman with a remarkable stock company of actors and an astonishing vision of what theatre could be like; his name was Orson Welles. If there were just one theatre community extant in New York nowadays (instead of the disparate dozen or so that actually exist), Ian W. Hill would, by now, be recognized as Welles's natural heir. In terms of audacity and energy, not to mention artistry, Hill has been proving himself a latter-day boy wonder for so long now that he doesn't really qualify for the epithet "boy" anymore. So when do the powers-that-be sit up and take notice?
The occasion for the foregoing hyperbole, which is sincere, I swear, despite its breathlessness, is my latest foray to a Hill opus. It's at the Brick, in Williamsburg, and it's a new production of Richard Foreman's Symphony of Rats, a text from 1988 about a President of the United States who goes crazy and thinks he is communicating with aliens. Hill directs, designs, and stars (as POTUS) in the show, abetted by his assistant/partner-in-crime Berit Johnson (working the sound/light board) and a cast of ten actors who have all been associated with him before, plus another (Art Wallace) doing recorded voiceovers.
I can't say that I followed everything in the show; Foreman and I don't ever seem to travel on the same wavelength, and so a lot of the pseudo-poetic absurd script failed to land in, or at least get parsed sensibly by, my brain.
But I certainly got the jist, which is that the president is wildly out of control; delusional, even: his chief of staff and his first lady can't get through to him, because he's both paranoid (convinced there are rats everywhere) and hallucinating (convinced he's seeing/talking to aliens).
There's some resonance to be had here: a Chief Executive who imagines enemies everywhere reminds us of Nixon; a President who thinks he's being directed to do things by some otherworldly being(s) could be interpreted as a stand-in for Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Furthermore, this President indulges in a lot of sexual shenanigans, with a mistress and a prostitute, which could bring to mind Bill Clinton.
Hill wisely eschews anything more specific than this, letting the audience find whatever relevance it chooses in the spectacle of the most powerful man in the world undergoing severe and sudden meltdown.
As far as I'm concerned, though, Symphony of Rats in Hill's version is about itself—a surreal, nightmarish parade of outlandish, inventive, thoroughly original sights and sounds: a mad Alice-in-Wonderland-ish presidential soap opera on acid. I was constantly engaged, almost always entertained, and frequently surprised. And I laughed a lot. The stage pictures, images, juxtapositions, even (in one place) the smells of Symphony of Rats provide a feast for the senses and fuel for the mood and, often, the intellect.
Hill works like a dog in the central role, which keeps him on stage throughout and at one point has him frenetically dancing until he looks like he's ready to drop. He's matched moment for moment by his splendid, sympatico co-stars—Peter Bean, Gita Borovsky, Amy Caitlin Carr, Carrie Johnson, Alyssa Simon, Moira Stone, Adam Swiderski, and Bryan Enk and Roger Nasser, the former especially memorable as an alien on the attack and the latter hilariously disingenuous as, first, a messenger in an old-style Philip Morris telegram boy getup and, a few minutes later, a goofy-looking alien.
Kudos to all involved for taking a dense, enigmatic text and making it evocative and endlessly interesting. If you don't know Hill's work, now's the time to catch up with him. He's a significant force in New York's indie theatre scene; he mustn't be lost sight of.