Astronome: A Night At The Opera
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
February 12, 2009
Richard Foreman, we have the theater surrounded. Put down the dotted string and back away slowly from the stage. Keep your hands where we can see them. Sir, do not point your finger. I repeat—no finger pointing. If you persist in making that gesture, we will be forced to fire our Aristotelian structural ray guns. Sir, this is your last... Thank you. Now turn around, VERY SLOWLY—no sudden changes of direction and under no circumstances are you to clutch the backdrop. We will pry your fingers loose by force if necessary. This entire stage set is now the site of an official investigation. All tarot cards, Hebrew letters, and assorted pieces of cloth will be confiscated and held as potential admissible evidence. You have the right to remain silent...
Unfortunately, Foreman has exercised that right in Astronome: A Night at the Opera, and the aesthetic mystery for the cultural police to solve is "why?" Over the past few years, Foreman's plays have featured a steadily diminishing amount of text. What was once a rich linguistic web of philosophical references, koans, slang, puns, poetic monologues, aphorisms, and almost vaudevillian exchanges has, with each passing performance since 2006, been reduced to a meager solitary strand bedecked with a few phrases: the term "stage fright" repeated ad nauseam; the provocative "It's very easy to choose the negative path to avoid things that are painful" and the far more dubious assertion that "There is nothing important in waking up in the morning." (Really, Richard? Nothing at all? Gee, the next time I have an appointment at my AIDS clinic, I'll share THAT observation with my fellow HIV-positive peeps—I'll let you know if I make it out with any bones intact.) With the addition of a few other lines, this is the sum total of the language in his newest piece.
What's replaced the text is John Zorn's assaultive score. I've never understood what accident of genetics causes straight white guys to be so enamored of this kind of screeching, atonal, arrhythmic spewing. I guess it expresses their anger at the world...or something, but all Zorn's score did for me was cause intense shooting cranial pain. However, this was no run-of-the-mill, extraordinary-how-potent-loud-music-can-be headache. Oh, no. This was an I've-been-up-for-72-hours-straight-doing-crystal-meth-and-ecstasy-and-have-blown-to-smithereens-every-last-serotonergic-neuron-in-my-brain kind of headache. You know, the type that lead directly to suicide attempts.
Although, that particular sense memory was probably apt. The thrash metal music occasionally lip-synched to by a green-faced guy clutching a microphone and the Alice in Wonderland imagery (clocks and giant salt shakers painted with hearts) evoke the '70s heyday of arena rock. So are the crumpled pieces of paper cast members shoveled up the huge proboscis on stage supposed to remind us of cocaine? Is Foreman drawing a parallel between his own addiction to knowledge and the behavior of rock stars like Stevie Nicks, known for vacuuming up with her nose the equivalent of the entire gross domestic product of Colombia? And I bet when the dudes on stage clutched their arms and fell over they were, like, supposed to be shooting heroin.
So the alchemical equation of this Foreman/Zorn magick act seems to be sex (in the guise of the sexy, dull young things whom Foreman has apparently decided will be the sole populace of his theatrical realm from now on) plus drugs plus rock 'n roll equals false messiahs who must be guarded against. Or sacrificed, if I'm interpreting correctly the Hanged Man from the Tarot who hovers over the stage for the entire performance. That's deep, man. Now give me a drag off of that doobie you're smoking!
Wait, what's that you say? Drugs are bad and can contribute to the belief in a false messiah? Are in fact a manifested form of false messianic impulse within the human animal? Well then, just say no.
Which would be my advice with regard to this show. I never thought I would write this about a Foreman piece, but this one should be missed. Without a play, without his words, all the cool imagery, all the choreographed weirdness just comes across as hokey and irksome. And did I mention the insufferable music? Two MacArthur geniuses trying to keep up with the cool kids in Billyburg and Bushwick—it's kind of embarrassing, as if Marian Seldes decided to shake her ass in a Lady GaGa video, while simultaneously lecturing us on how vapid the music is.
One of the other associations of the Hanged Man is the choices one makes in the aftermath of a midlife crisis. But, surely, Foreman's past that by now? He doesn't need to compete with the hipsters on the L line to prove his relevance. He is a classic, and his work on its worst days trumps theirs for depth, insight, intelligence, and humor. But maybe I've turned him into the false messiah of his fears—burdening him with my own artistic obsessions. Maybe he's lost interest in being the great writer who kept his own theatre going for 40 years—a theatre of disturbing vision and exhilarating language. A theatre where the most idiosyncratic and brilliant actors in the American theatre were given the chance to shine, everyone from David Patrick Kelly to David Greenspan and Lola Pashalinski to Lili Taylor. A theatre that revolutionized theatrical design in this country. Maybe that's all too much to sustain, and maybe it's time for him to pack it in. Or maybe he never wanted any of it. Maybe he's always just wanted beautiful empty signifiers masquerading as actors, directing Foreman's attention to his own crystalline stage pictures—a theatre built for one—and now in his 70s he finally has the nerve to do it.
Well, I shan't return to the Ontological. I've lost faith in the work being done there. I'll read the plays from now on, and dream an opium reverie of the theatre that once made them possible.