Permanent Brain Stasis
By Marc Robinson
to Be Happy!)
By Richard Foreman
Ontological Theatre at St. Mark's Church
131 E. 10th St. (at 2nd Ave.)
Jan. 9 to Apr. 13, 2003
Box Office (212) 533-4650
Despite the caffeinated sound of its title, its
characters' libidinal bluster and short attention spans, and the violence
cresting and subsiding so regularly it tears at the very seams of the
stage, Richard Foreman's new production, Panic! (How to Be Happy!),
is in fact most compelling when seen as a study of immobility. Its four
main actors--two women, one dressed in black and the other in white,
and two men, one speaking in a falsetto and the other in a low growl--embody
the war of alternatives inhibiting all decisive action and thought in
their world. Balance, here, doesn't foster well-being. Instead, it arrests
at their highest intensity numerous pairs of irreconcilable longings.
Sexual obsession vies with revulsion. Spiritual seeking pulls against
secular cynicism. Enthusiasm for the future can't triumph over preoccupation
with the past. The panic envisioned in the title would be a relief.
Characters could then release their pent-up energies until they're spent--learning,
at last, "how to be happy."
The few times they do break loose, they no less
abruptly reassert the kind of decorum peculiar to the Ontological-Hysteric
Theater--in the production, one character's lazy-eyed anomie, another's
impacted resentment, a third's tightly wound cheerfulness. Unself-consciousness,
panic's surrender to instinct, is forever deferred by these pendulum
swings in mood, if not permanently squelched by the characters' analytical
habits. They recoil from their every act to judge it, unable to resist
contemplating all the options they didn't choose.
This picture of violent ambivalence furthers
an argument Foreman has been waging with himself ever since Pearls
for Pigs (1997). There, he wondered openly whether his familiar
solipsism was losing its ability to nourish him. No longer was it reliably
steering him to knowledge buried beneath mere self-awareness, he implied,
nor causing epiphanies about matters beyond the self altogether. The
mental transcendence he sought was coming into ever greater conflict
with the body's more pressing, less exalted demands. It was a dramatically
enthralling crisis, as were the efforts to escape the self by abasing
it, fracturing and dispersing it, or renouncing the scene of its crisis--the
Now Foreman seems to plunge deeper into doubt,
soaking in it rather than fretting over its symptoms or searching for
what, in another play, he called "the cure." Panic!
is among his most claustrophobic works--a quality made apparent by the
fact that none of many onstage exits leads anywhere except deeper into
the same setting. These spaces--a confessional-like cabinet, a hideaway
behind an upstage flat, two inner sanctums, and a pair of theater boxes
above the stage--match the recesses and compartments of a mind tormented
by its own ingenuity. Like the actors moving through these stages-within-stages,
thought itself moves through an argument, only to find it hasn't gone
anywhere except deeper into its first idea. "He goes where no man
has dared to go," are the hopeful opening words of Panic!
But the promise of such adventurousness pales with the second line,
"I shall not enter this tomb," and grows ever fainter until,
by the end, the characters are mentally paralyzed, the objects of other
people's adventure, destinations rather than travelers: "That thing
entering the room," says a voice at the end, referring to an anthropomorphic
object that could just as easily be another idea or emotion. “I forget
what to name it, but I’d better think fast."
The play's inwardness derives from more than
just this narrative of creeping passivity. Almost all the text, like
that of Permanent Brain Damage (1995), is spoken by Foreman
himself, in ominous voiceovers that sink over the stage like fog or
(in deliberate mockery of its heaviness) in high acapella chant--existential
plainsong. He speaks from within a deep solitude--resigned to its privations
when not actively rebuffing the attentions of others. "Never show
true feelings to people hungry for mutual affectionate behavior,"
he says. "Nobody can be somebody's spiritual helpmate." Foreman
now seems to choose self-reliance only because other kinds of kinship
have proved illusory or disappointing, or been lost as he hesitated
over their cost. When this Foreman declares that "I already love
myself" or that "I can choose my own private direction,"
the familiar sentiments sound new because they are voiced against threats
to his autonomy, or, more often, in the wake of a general renunciation
of an external world that has betrayed him.
It's hard to tell which is stronger--paranoia
or self-righteousness, or simple bitterness at the failure of art to
rescue him from life. He speaks of his "enemies," warns himself
to be "careful," since "here come the men who change
everything," and reconceives his longstanding spiritual discipline
so that now he "worship[s]" only "through increasing
distance." Even that faith is in doubt. The Foreman who, in many
previous productions, could be counted on to make visible a god of one
kind or another--a big, unmysterious contraption of boards and paint,
usually child-like or grotesque, but nonetheless present--now warns
that "those who sink tried to walk on water." When disappointment
in the superhuman is this severe, vanity (Foreman's word) is merely
reassuring and pragmatic.
Despite this play's air of disillusionment,
Foreman still seems to fear a sudden eruption of passion--instinct leading
him back to discredited patterns of behavior--and so he presses down
on his onstage surrogates, as if disciplining animals he doesn't trust
to have been tamed. Foreman writes that "My mouth is sealed with
gold," and throughout the production he works variations on such
bondage. The main actors (Tea Alagic, Robert Cucuzza, Elina Löwensohn,
and D. J. Mendel) are dressed in multiple layers of clothing, burying
whatever natural selves they have under disguises as heterogeneous as
their character names. Nikos wears a fur vest over a tee-shirt over
yet another shirt, as well as, later, a skirt on top of his pants. Umberto
struts and preens in courtier's feathers, doublet, brocade, and buckles.
Luminitza is herself a riot of textures and patterns--lace, paisley,
velvet, and silk. Svetlana wears a baby-doll dress over long-johns,
and a hat covered with Ping-Pong balls. Everyone in fact wears some
form of headdress, as if Foreman were clamping down on thought itself.
With the most menacing of the characters, Nikos, Foreman takes extra
precautions, binding his arms with tape to keep his muscles in line.
It's no use. Desire's volcanic force begins
pushing against the play's inwardness early on, when Foreman says, "Kiss
me, kiss me, when I am most ruined, inside myself." Soon, this
need intensifies, spiking like a fever and then running out of control,
as orality in all its forms threatens to wreak havoc. In the first scene,
a woman licking a sword makes clear the double-edged nature of all subsequent
hunger. When two characters kiss, they seem to bruise their lips and
break their teeth. Others lick ice-cream cones that immediately slip
from their hands. A man doubles over and retches after eating a pastry.
Lust turns ludicrous when the men bury their faces in huge prop vaginas,
half the size of the women holding them, only to be whipped and rendered
so weak they can't emerge from the objects of their desire. (They stagger
around the stage with the genitalia sitting on their heads like vaguely
Alpine hats.) The chorus of stagehands displays the only uncomplicated
penetration in the production: They are multiply pierced with nose rings,
lower-lip studs, and eyebrow staples, and in their indifference recommend
the proper response to other kinds of violation.
Indeed, such affectlessness quickly drains every
action, however bold, of its power. The women protagonists pick lint
from their hair during the scenes of oral sex. They humorlessly grind
phallic objects into their partners. After thrusting once against the
men, they push them to the floor. Despite the grimness of Foreman's
vision of sexuality--his male surrogates yearning for shame and submitting
to humiliation--it remains without consequence. There’s no nadir to
the abjection, and certainly no sense that the self-sacrifice will lead
to absolution, purification, much less the relief of oblivion. Far from
it: the bodies are still intact, unchanged despite the masochism, as
if their greatest torment is their own resilience. That sense of an
all-enveloping, smothering stasis, undisturbed even by repeated acts
of aggression, is more alarming than the aggression itself. Foreman
is always reminding himself that tranquillity won't be consoling ("This,
no end of trouble, is my safe harbor," says the Voice), and that
it can't protect him from the agony of uncertainty ("This paradise
is half and half objectionable"). Mere seeing--the gentlest, most
discreet mode of contact--is painful: When characters look through a
Plexiglas disc at the front of the stage, a flash of light momentarily
blinds them. Yet they keep coming back, only to be shocked again, covering
their eyes and stumbling in almost the same pattern.
Is this what Foreman means when, in the text
and a program note, he speaks of being "here now, inside the behavioral
center?" There was a time in Foreman's career when such a condition
would be desirable--the individual so intimate with his emotional and
physical impulses that he doesn't second-guess them, doesn't siphon
off their vitality with either anticipation or retrospective judgement.
In The Cure (1986), Foreman went even further, recommending
that one stay so deep within this "behavioral center" that
one never actually follows through on any desire for fear of diluting
it. Actions only compromise intentions, he argued in that play. Its
characters struggled not to betray the memory of their glittering, ideal
wishes with the banal reality of their fulfillment.
Of course Panic! also resists development.
Like all Foreman, it repeats itself, idles, leaps forward only to leap
backward--the verbal and gestural equivalents of the loops of music
wreathing the action. But now such circularity seems less a choice than
a stoic acquiescence to reality, a comment perhaps on the fading of
an ideal that once promised deliverance. Foreman no longer seems to
know what he would be delivered to. The vision of utopia he has variously
termed "Paradise Hotel," "Poetry City," and (in
an uncut draft of Permanent Brain Damage) "the room of
radios" is here obscured by "the paraphernalia of my youth,"
the "entire world [of] memories," the "old patterns,"
and "redundant behavior." Obsession with the past isn't the
only habit blunting perception. The future seems even less alive. Several
times in Panic, a board appears on which are pasted desiccated,
vaguely excremental shapes. "Here's tomorrow's baked goods,"
the voice announces, helpfully, "stale already."
This is the dark side of Gertrude Stein's continuous
present--more purgatory than paradise. Here, his characters can't sustain
contact with others, realize no goals, doubt spiritual knowledge as
soon as it comes within reach. They're not even reliably narcissistic.
Near the end, when a gingerbread house appears, the characters reach
for the lolly-pops and ice-cream cones covering its roof, ignoring the
little mirrors on sticks next to them. Death itself, always a taunting
presence in Foreman's theater, can't touch them. Here, it hovers over--but
never descends upon--the room in the shape of a vulture, hanging so
far upstage it's easy to miss. Fear, despair, anxiety: the typical Foreman
emotions barely surface in Panic!, if at all. The most affecting response
comes from an inanimate figure--a massive head representing the Old
Man in the Mountain, whose sadness is marked by a single large tear
painted on his cheek. Ignoring such pathos, the living actors take their
cue from the many Victorian dolls with glazed eyes hanging around the
stage, impervious to all disturbances. Death's inevitability doesn't
affect them because they've never been alive.
These portraits attest to the severity of Foreman's
judgement on "unavoidably frustrated effort and desire" (as
he writes in the program): In other plays, the "effort" wouldn't
have seemed so routine and pessimistic, and the reaction to its failure
so weak and unsurprised. Foreman's honesty has unexpected consequences.
Panic!, in the end, isn't as satisfying as other recent Ontological
productions--a result, I think, of dramatizing fatigue itself, Foreman
staging a battle for self-mastery while at the same time conceding that
it was lost long ago. Reviewers of Panic! have praised the
acting for, among other things, its "noncommittal quality"
and "impassivity" (as the Village Voice's Michael
Feingold calls it), so unlike the "masked emotional depth"
of previous performers. The change is indeed striking, but to me it's
regrettable. Seasoned as this cast is, it never projects what one would
call charm, if that word didn't sound inappropriate to a theater that
refuses to pander to its audience. The best of earlier Foreman actors
were opinionated and even querulous presences, not diffident, nor merely
droll. They seemed knowing instead of jaded--a more active state. When
they addressed us in a confidential, even conspiratorial tone, they
were genuinely fascinated by their condition. They joined us in marveling
at their landscape, puzzling out their text, and occasionally even looking
dubiously upon their own behavior. Inside their seeming numbness burned
passionate thought, an unpredictable individuality that added poignancy
to the abstractions of their dialogue. That tension was theatrically
productive--there was always something that Foreman, sitting in front
of them in the audience at his sound board, couldn't control.
Here, though, the actors seem to have acquiesced
to their characters' fates too easily and completely, with the result
that the theater itself, once a place for Foreman to confront life's
insults by constructing an exaggerated, compressed, and sped-up simulation
of them, now becomes another place where he must suffer them.
(Marc Robinson teaches at the Yale School of Drama and Yale
College. He is the author of The Other American Drama.)