nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
October 30, 2009
Let's begin with full disclosure: prior to Idiot Savant, I had never seen the work of auteur director Richard Foreman. My professors at Hunter have praised his vision, and I've come across his name in every book I've read on important contemporary theatre. But actually seen his work? Never.
In most cases however, this absence of knowledge is rarely detrimental, as a majority of theatre continues to unfold in narrative form, easily followed by anyone. Strict narrative is not, however, what Foreman does. In an interview he did with David Savran for In Their Own Words, Foreman states that his work is more closely related to modern art than it is to the novel, a form he sees as being traditional theatre's closest relative.
Modern art is a good place to start in understanding, or at least beginning to think you understand, Foreman's latest (and last?) work, Idiot Savant. The set alone supports this alternative approach, which looks much more like an exhibit found at MOMA than the Met. With its mixture of opulence and the profane, as displayed by the fine chandeliers that shine down upon graffiti style portraits, Foreman has placed his play in a world that can mean everything, as well as nothing, all at the same time. Of course, we know the former to be the truth. The photographs and portraits crowding the lofty red walls, along with the multiple clocks used in the play, force one to consider the passage, and cyclical nature, of time, one of the many themes running through Savant. The giant number-embossed doors that refuse to open highlight the cage-like atmosphere of the play's world. The raised bar running across the stage, literally dividing the playing space from the audience space brings to mind...well, you get the picture.
With golden birdcage in hand, the Savant enters, finely attired in a long skirt and sporting a top-knot, as if from a dream world where Victorian England mingles freely with Japanese Samurai. The costume, absurd as it may be, is not arbitrary or solely for aesthetic purposes. The clothes, drawn from cultures that wore control and austerity on their sleeves, present a visible contrast to the many desires lurking within the Savant and his fellow characters. This constant battle between desire and entrapment, played out on a set that offers only temporary exits, is wonderfully portrayed here by Dafoe. His inner struggle, expressing itself in the forms of both language and pure physical gesture and aggression, is always palpable, leaving the audience with something real to follow in the absence of a more traditional story-line.
Joining Savant in his world are two females, both of whom take turns in serving as the target for Savant's often grotesque affection. Playing Marie, Alenka Kraigher, in her long, royally velvet dress, is soft, cunning, and less prone to the temperamental actions that define Savant. Standing almost exclusively in profile as if the model for a fine portrait, Marie begins by submitting herself as a virginal queen who, in secret, holds all the knowledge of a worldly woman. Her rival, and yet comrade in this cyclical world, is Olga (Elina Lowensohn). The earthy opposite of Marie, Olga walks hard in her riding boots, drinks heavily from the alcohol spouts scattered on the walls, and proudly displays, figuratively and literally, her sexuality for all to see. While Olga seems much more interested in getting the Savant, Marie is comfortable playing hard to get.
Differences in personality aside, one certainty all three characters share is the reality of being trapped in a world run by ducks and the Green Mile-like voice coming across the loudspeaker. For all their efforts to control the current situation, Savant, Olga, and Marie are ultimately at the mercy of this voice, who in spite of referring to them as "actors" represents something greater than a director with the vocals of Barry White. This voice is that of the eternal, of a figure that has presided over a "play" like this many times before. And not just that which has already occurred. When the Savant says, "The end of my reign approaches...After which I shall come to know even more frightening experiences," it becomes clear that the voice will, no doubt, remain long after the Savant's current role ends. Another play awaits Savant, similar to yet unique from the play that preceded this one. But are the actors in this unending cycle of theatre alone? The lights, which are designed to, at times, shine on the audience as well as the actors, coupled with the overhead voice, certainly makes one think otherwise. 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.