Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
January 25, 2007
BEWARE: The following paragraph is one dangerously inapt cliche after another and therefore should be treated with the outmost caution and skepticism. Richard Foreman is the foremost mettieur en scene of the labyrinthine workings of the human mind. He is arguably the greatest living director/playwright in the United States and is one of the few dozen masters of the art of the theatre alive in the world today. He has numerous worshipful acolytes Downtown who diligently replicate his techniques of fractured text; creepy, affectless acting; disruptive bursts of recorded sound and too-bright light; and goofy bits of stage business but whose work often lacks his deep understanding of philosophy and his moral conviction. Simultaneously, (simultaneity being one of Foreman's most cherished compositional strategies) he is a marginalized figure. Many of my friends and colleagues, even those in independent theatre, refuse to see his work because they find it impenetrable and boring and the same thing over and over again. He hasn't directed a production at a large New York institutional theater in 11 years. And to the Broadway crowd he is nonexistent. It must be an unusually difficult and odd existence to be Richard Foreman.
Which is simultaneously (there's that word again) what much of his work is about AND the sort of narcissistic and self-pitying statement Foreman himself would immediately find a way to mock, undercut, or outright contradict in one of his pieces. In fact the entire preceding paragraph one imagines would send him (assuming he would even bother to read it) hurtling against the wall opposite his computer, twisting in dyskinesic agony like a performer in one of his pieces. Foreman is aesthetically allergic to the kind of certitudinous platitudes more conventional theatrical events (and the reviews that record them for posterity) treat as a priori reality. For Foreman, "reality" is always a figment of our collective imagination, and therefore the meaning, or even content, of any given moment, whether in life or on stage, is always up for grabs.
This is different, however, from saying that in his plays nothing means anything—which is where both his detractors and supplicants usually get it wrong. Meaning is elusive in a Foreman piece and often operates on a sublingual level, but it's always present. More cliche: Walking out of a Foreman piece is always like waking from a particularly engaging dream. One feels exhilarated, giddy, sad, confused, nauseous—or perhaps more accurately, one experiences an emotional state that incorporates elements of identifiable emotions without every quite coalescing into something nameable. As in a dream, the individual components of his pieces don't necessarily add up (even in the most accessible ones), but the overall effect is always undeniable and specific.
Walking out of Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!, what I felt most was despair. It's perhaps the bleakest theatrical statement that Foreman's ever made, and while the humor that has always characterized his work is still very much present, the overall tone is one of entropy and exhaustion, of things coming to an end. It's also the sparest text I've ever heard in one of his pieces. Lines recur like mantras. Is this the endgame of language—what remains when there's nothing left to say? The distillation of 40 years of textual labor to its essence? The comfort in repetition that believers get from reciting prayers during religious ceremonies? The answer could be all of the above, or none of the above, but his use of minimalism, nevertheless, is striking and sad. To my ears, Foreman seems to be pondering in this piece the inevitable future silencing of his voice, while simultaneously (again!) creating a private religious ritual in celebration of the unconscious mind and his role in giving form to it over the years.
Because perhaps he's confronting the end of things, he also seems to be grappling with his legacy (see cliched first paragraph). Double helixes decorate the set. Are these strands of DNA? Fetishistic totems to magically ensure continuing artistic progeny? The performance begins with Foreman's pre-recorded voice intoning, "Okay, if there were young children in the audience..." But of course no one takes a young child to see a Richard Foreman play, and he himself has never had children, which begs the question: "How long will this work live on in active memory?" At other points the voice references Red Riding Hood and the little piggies that went to market, comforting favorites of children everywhere. But these variations on fairy tales only invoked for me the wolf of mortality at the door.
Last year, Foreman declared that he was abandoning the use of live actors to speak his language. As such Mr. Sleepy uses a largely silent, veiled chorus of four live performers (plus one airplane pilot who periodically appears) juxtaposed against video images of European actors (the sequences were recorded in Portugal). While the movement chorus dashes around with frenetically precise energy, the figures on the screen hold poses for minutes at a time, and then suddenly begin speaking words of text. The images have the hushed reverence of early Renaissance ecclesiastical painting, with a whiff of Euro-chic decadence (to match the opera and choral music used throughout the sound design). A patrician-looking middle-aged woman stands staring at the camera. She is ringed round by others. The men stare at her intently; the women cover their eyes. In another scene, a man licks cream out of a bowl placed on the floor. In yet another scene a woman stands rubbing her stomach while the others stare at her anxiously. After many minutes of this, she suddenly falls to the floor. Is she pregnant? Does she have a tumor? A door behind the tableau opens to a sunny, seaside vista. Is this the realm of the unconscious? The afterlife? Is there really any difference?
Intentionally or not, locating the preponderance of the text in the mouths of videotaped actors and disembodied voices creates a world where only the mediated figures have humanity. Much like our world, the "real" people, the people who count, only exist on screen or on the radio. But unlike the "go-get-'em, you-deserve-the-best, everything's-gonna-be-alright" emptiness served up by the flickering shadows of our entertainment-saturated culture to distract us from a greater emptiness, these figures confront the void: "It's broken and it can't be fixed," and "If it's broken..." to which the only completer would seem to be "don't fix it." The Earth is broken; the trust between people and government is broken; our lives and relationships are broken; our psyches are broken. And while these breaks are painful, it is these very fractures that provide the unconscious mind with the raw material to forge new connections. So, yes, this is a bleak vision, but one shot through with joy in the possibilities of staying alive to one's creative self.
It's also mesmerizing from beginning to end. Foreman may be mourning/celebrating a broken world and the end of a brilliant career, but his power to evoke his particular existential anguish has not diminished. The piece builds to a musical crescendo reminiscent of a Handel oratorio (or is it a Mozart requiem?) and Foreman unleashes a visual image unlike any I've ever seen. Managing to evoke World War II paratroopers, the history of Western religion from the Egyptians to the Jews to the Catholic Church, the apocalypse, and Foreman-knows what else, it's a jaw-dropping coup de théatre. "Click here for additional happiness," the voice says, evoking in one line an entire culture that compulsively surfs the Internet, looking for that next fix, while everything around us goes to hell in a hand basket. It's the end of the world as we know it, but for Richard Foreman, that's just fine.