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Juliana Francis, T. Ryder Smith, Richard Foreman, and Jay Smith on the set of King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe

The Madness of King Rufus

By Jonathan Kalb

King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe

By Richard Foreman
Ontological Theatre at St. Mark's
131 E. 10th St.

Box office: (212) 533-4650


When Thomas Jefferson opined that no president could ever do irrevocable harm to America's democracy in only four years, he had clearly not counted on George W. Bush. By the same token, when Richard Foreman conceived his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre as a manic, carnivalesque projection of his mental interior, he had clearly not counted on the ability of a real-life warmongering cowboy-poseur like Bush to threaten his creative repose. In an atypically self-justifying program note to King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe, his latest Ontological-Hysteric Theatre production, Foreman says the work is atypically political: "the pressure of the real world is such that I feel the need to respond to what's happening." Actually, the piece is no more or less political than half a dozen others he has done over the years responding with exquisite subtlety and complexity to public issues from Watergate to the end of Communism to Monicagate. Something in the nature of this particular political moment, however--its virulence, its doublespeak, its trivializations--has compelled Foreman to reach further than he has before towards a certain overtness that jangles a bit with his idiom.

The title character of King Cowboy Rufus--a rotund and ridiculously pretentious fop played with marvelous egomaniacal relish by Jay Smith--is an old-world English gentleman who dreams of becoming a "real American cowboy hero." He is variously described as a man to whom "words don't come easily," "a man who works like a horse and then--sleeps like a big, fat, dirty log," and "a man who claims he has no desire to leave his own neighborhood." In case you don't get the cryptic Bush references, the cluttered saloon-cum-French-cabaret set is festooned with portraits and names of American presidents, as well as the usual bric-a-brac from Foreman's personal collective unconscious: checkerboards, striped strings, antique dolls, torn newspapers, Hebrew letters, roulette wheels.

In some of his maddening plays, Foreman does provide a fairly lucid story arc for his central character--or at least a more discernible one than he gives here. This, however, is one of those works that seems to loop around on itself like a helix of absurd and outrageous activities. Rufus buys an abandoned tobacco factory in the hopes of a "dalliance with [its] unhealthy yet strangely attractive female employees"; declares that he has "no imagination" and complains when forced to use what he has; poses with babies who look like fat larvae popping out of black cocoons; shoots pistols for no reason; eats "crow pie"; has his head sliced open by foils who say he is "hard to penetrate"; and suffers innumerable other bouts of humiliation, self-doubt, bewilderment and frenzy. Near the end, as a sort of afterthought, he mentions that he'd like to rule the universe.

His foils are a brooding, occasionally snappish "coquette" named Suzie Sitwell (played with lugubrious seductiveness by Juliana Francis in a beige silk dress) and a poetry-mangling, poker-faced aristocrat from Crete named Baron Herman De Voto (T. Ryder Smith, sporting a thick Brooklyn accent, fuzzy pink slippers and a chalkboard with indecipherable writing over a blue business suit). The chief function of these others--along with a chorus of kilt-clad young men and fishnet-clad cigarette girls--is apparently to keep Rufus off balance in his quest for theatrical self-confidence and hence sexual and political power.

From just this sketchy description, it should be clear that King Cowboy Rufus is a bona fide labyrinthine Ontological-Hysteric Theatre work, not some simplified reversion to political didacticism or, worse, Cartesian logic. All the Bush references are really false limbs, because no Foreman character is ever consistently or straightforwardly allegorical--including those he has occasionally named after historical figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bataille. Foreman's characters are always personifications of the phases of his mental anguish. That's what he means when he says he does theater not just in a different style but for different reasons from other people.

T. Ryder Smith, Jay Smith and Juliana Francis in Richard Foreman's King Cowboy Rufus Rules the UniverseThus, if he sticks to his general working method, he can't be didactic because, advocacy aside, he's not even asking (as most playwrights are) to be seen as a font of anything (sagacious precepts, moving homilies, clever quips). His plays are vessels for anguished reverie, meticulously guided disorientation--his own and ours. If specific worldly associations distract in any way from this larger attempt to disorient, it's because they are indeed less interesting than the more freewheeling process of distraction he's famous for. Like all regular Foreman-goers, I'm used to taking fantastic mental side trips during his plays. This time, however, I found that those trips took me farther afield (I was stuck for long intervals on Iraq, terrorism and the Patriot Act, for instance) and often kept me from the marvelous serendipitous returns to his imagistic smorgasbord that I've come to cherish.

Perhaps sensing this danger of distraction from distraction, Foreman has enlisted his actors to draw us repeatedly back into his world. There is no plexiglass in front of the stage for this show, for instance, and Rufus enters the audience several times along a red carpet up the center aisle, scattering enough spittle and perspiration to rouse a slumbering Republican: "Look at . . . me--way up here, from the vantage point of honest to God, ordinary Human Beings, just like you and you and you--and me. Join me? YIP YIP YIP! GET ALONG LITTLE DOGGIES." On top of this, asides and other confidences to the audience are more explicit than they have been in many years, particularly from the Baron.

All of this really amounts to adjustment rather than radical departure for Foreman, though, whose whole career could be described as an exploration of the extent to which interiority can be invaded by external events before it loses its brilliance and mystery. As he once wrote apropos Symphony of Rats, another play about the President of the United States (originally done with The Wooster Group, in 1988): "The real politics of America have to do with the conflict between people who can sustain ambiguity in their lives, and people who are terrified by ambiguity and fight to reduce every issue to clearly defined choices, either black or white, and so become conservative reactionaries. All my plays engage exactly this issue--how to sustain ambiguity in your conscious life without allowing it to plunge you into feelings of loss and confusion." To me, these explorations have almost always been splendidly audacious, inspiringly weird, and consummately political, even at their most hermetic. Perhaps this time a need to join the political fray cost Foreman a measure of the disorienting concentration that he knows so well.


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