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,
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.
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.