Perhaps the most challenging piece I attempted in graduate school, written for Tom Sellar’s class. I look forward to reading Tom Sellar’s book on Foreman, whenever it’s finished and published. -DL
After cramming into Richard Foreman’s tiny chamber theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, one of the first things one may notice about his new work, Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland (which he has suggestively titled a “Theater Machine”) are the theater’s walls. They have been papered over with black-and-white photographs from what appears to be the early twentieth or nineteenth century. In each, a seated figure is complemented by a misty, ethereal substance hovering over his or her head, a ghostly form of almost human shape and size – spirit photographs. Moreover, Foreman places these strange tokens, either hoary pieces of theater or hints of the afterlife, frozen in time and place by technology, in direct juxtaposition to the auditorium. The audience sits, confronted by seated black-and-white figures staring back, oblivious to the otherworldly spirits hanging in the ether above their heads. The gesture is quintessential Foreman, exciting the imagination and the intellect in equal proportion while also denying satisfactorily concrete meaning. Is he pointing the finger at his audience and calling us living corpses, oblivious to the drama of the spirit floating above our eyes before the play has even begun? Or is he pointing at the theatrical event itself, implicitly labeling it an elaborate illusion? As always, the spectator is left stuck between contradictory poles, furiously interpreting clues that have no easy answer.
In Deep Trance’s split-level action, as in Foreman’s most recent work, these poles (metaphysical hieroglyphics and sociopolitical ruptures, irrational mysticism and rational skepticism, modernist signage and avant-garde anti-illusionism) no longer reside simply in the theater. Rather like a spirit photographer, juxtaposing materiality with traces of the evanescent, Foreman contrasts the live bodies of his actors with that of filmed tableaus, digital spirits louring down on the action from large video screens which take up the stage’s entire back wall. Another inextricable dichotomy, then, one made more tangled by Foreman’s characteristic dramaturgical strategy of chaotic repetition, fragmentation, and juxtaposition. The brain is both fired and fried by a Foreman piece, and the resulting struggle for meaning is draining. I doubt this is unintentional.
Though Deep Trance opens with and periodically returns to ritually charged enactments – a female figure walks on, sticks her tongue out, and solemnly pops a pill in an ironic conflation of the Catholic Mass and an ecstasy trip – the dominant mode onstage is one of stasis. It appears at first glance that Foreman has either worn out the theater’s possibilities, or perhaps simply become bored by it. After being joined by four more actors (three female, one male), the small ensemble spends the first fifteen minutes of the hour-long “theater machine” staring up at two large screens. When they do act, it is either to return to the communion motif or its opposite, crucifixion. With a minimum of dialogue, the four actresses repeatedly surround the Man In the Striped Suit (dressed in cape and an eye-patch) and kill him, either cutting him with ceremonial prop knives or allowing him to play the role of bull as they enact the role of matador. Indeed, the Man (played with choreographic zest by Joel Israel) prowls the stage like a bored beast in a cage, sometimes falling to the ground without warning and lying inert before rising and repeating his circular action. When he does speak, the solitary line Foreman gives him acknowledges the duality lying at the center of the piece, while gesturing toward a more suggestive subject present elsewhere, either internally or somewhere other than the stage. “Me and my shadow,” he growls, drawing out the syllables in a ridiculous voice. Foreman has taken care to render this possibly exciting spectacle utterly affectless, to the extent that the onstage performers increasingly resemble automata or marionettes. The stage action constitutes a passion play bereft of passion, a constantly repeating cycle of paradoxically numb pathos. Moreover, this Christ figure in bourgeois business suit is granted no transfiguration, only the promise of more suffering. Even deadness offers no way out of the theater, and Foreman has reduced archetypal suffering to a meaningless theater game. The stage action climaxes about halfway through the show, each of the actors banging on cardboard walls that refuse to yield, their silent screams drowned out by a deafening air-raid siren. There is no escape from this drama of theatrical deadness.
On the other hand, Foreman seems to find some form of escape, both aesthetic and personal, in Deep Trance’s experiments with film. The images are drawn from a recent passion of Foreman’s, the Bridge Project, filmed on location in Japan and England over the last few years. Seeking to build bridges between the media of film and theater, perhaps even seeking to build bridges between cultures from disparate sections of the globe, the project has resulted in tableaux of a striking, evocative nature. Like his stage pictures, his films explore deadness, but in them all hints to suffering have vanished, replaced with a peaceful passage to an abstract beyond. The first inset film, watched by the actors onstage, is of a Japanese woman (it would be hard to call her an actor), standing in a long, symmetrical hallway. As she walks serenely away from the camera, into an engulfing white light, Foreman’s voice booms over the theater’s sound system, “GO TO JAPAN!” Forty minutes into the action, this simple but powerful motif – the journey to another world, possibly the afterlife – serves as the fundament for the second of Deep Trance’s climaxes. Figures crawl up and down seemingly endless flights of stairs, the same bright white light emanating from above and below. Their faces are affectless yet contorted by unspeakable emotion, the soundtrack, similarly, a welter of swelling yet atonal strings. This sense of passage is reinforced by the cryptic phrases uttered by Foreman throughout the performance, either over the sound system or in the form of projected text. These sentence fragments, frequently missing a subject, double as imperatives and incantations. “ENTERING SOON THE ROOM OF INTENSE LIGHT . . . OPEN THIS DOOR,” he intones, letting his voice reverberate, an echo of the visual images cascading across the screen. Enclosed by the screen’s frame, the frozen-in-time worlds of Japan and England appear to attain an aesthetic totality denied the action onstage. In this realm, art can seemingly promise escape, perhaps even spiritual redemption from a corporeal world racked by plaguing self-consciousness.
Foreman, at least, seems to think so. He repeatedly exhorts the audience to leave behind this world for the other, seizing on a metaphor which at first feels oddly counterintuitive. “ONLY BEING A TOURIST CAN ONE UNDERSTAND,” he says. “ONLY BEING A TOURIST CAN ONE EXPERIENCE A PLACE.” This advocation of seeming sociopolitical irresponsibility is augmented by Foreman’s privileging of the foreign and exotic. He posits the Japanese and English scenes, indeed, the Japanese and English people, as somehow more authentic than the captive audience sitting in New York City. “JAPANESE PEOPLE UNDERSTAND . . . ENGLISH PEOPLE UNDERSTAND.” Tourism appears to be the only positive left, the only way to escape from the deadness saturating the life of the stage. This attitude applies not only to Deep Trance, but to the appreciation and experience of all of Foreman’s art. Tourism, perhaps most simply understood as the act of idly consuming the culture of foreign worlds without ever assuming a correspondence to one’s own, is the only way to satisfyingly indulge in the escapism inherent to the aesthetic experience. Indeed, the exact same phrase “only being a tourist can one experience a place,” first appears in Foreman’s 1976 production Rhoda in Potatoland, a work which bears not only a striking titular resemblance to Deep Trance, and which unfolds in the same surrealist “potatoland” of staged consciousness itself, but dramatizes a similar action: the escape from the world of phenomenal, tortured reality to a paradisical world beyond the limits of art.
If tourism is the only method of gaining access to “paradise” (which Foreman has often said his art attempts to visualize), then it is a strenuously compromised and ambiguous, if not downright pessimistic method, one always aware of the escapist paradise’s essentially transitory nature. Soon enough, it will end, leaving behind only the emptiness of illusion. Foreman undercuts transcendent meaning in Deep Trance through a variety of means. Perhaps the most startling comes after the second climactic moment, forty minutes into the production. The video screen, which had depicted a world of shimmering staircases with no top or bottom steps and mysterious off-screen sources of bright white light glowing, suddenly appears to explode in a blinding flash. After a moment, the momentarily blinded eyes of the audience having readjusted, the light source at the center of the screen becomes visible. It is a naked lightbulb, part of the set’s cunningly boobytrapped design, sticking out through a small circular hole in the screen. Foreman has undermined the illusionistic, otherworldly, “touristic” effect with a chintzy theatrical one, a microcosm of the tension characterizing the interaction of film and drama in the whole piece. Paradisical transformation, briefly glimpsed, has been lost, if it was ever anything other than an illusion in the first place.
Foreman thus attempts to stage the martyrdom of the present-day in the passionless paces of his actors, and he screens the failure of transcendence in art and life in his film tableaux. Both can be understood as acts of self-vampirism. Slowly, he siphons the drama from the stage and he sucks the belief in meaning from the screen, leaving behind only the withered husks of an action on both. Sure enough, the Man in the Striped Suit, an autobiographical stand-in as well as an indictment of soulless materialism, bares plastic vampire fangs at a late stage in the performance. Theater, life, society, all are trapped in a ceaseless dance of death. But Foreman is also feeding on something, or someone, else. His manifesto-like insert to the program speaks of “the slow hypnotism of film” and of “theater dissolving itself in the ‘acid-bath’ of film,” resulting in a hybrid form: “Not theater, not film.” Split between two media, Deep Trance functions like a self-cancelling magnet, endlessly bouncing from one pole to its opposite, leaving the spectator weary in the search for unitary meaning. But who is being hypnotized? The actors, those marionettes of the puppeteer? The artist himself, peering into his own soul like Hamlet gazing in Yoric’s skull?
As far back as a 1987 interview in TDR, Foreman spoke provocatively of his desire to “give up the theatre,” noting that he was “ambivalent about art,” including his own, for its incrimination in a fictive imaginary world.
“I see I’ve spent my life,” he said, “just as 20 years ago I casually said all artists did, making little paintings about the way I think life should be. I said that, but for a long time when I made my plays I was able to really pretend to myself psychically that the world I was making in my plays, which made me relatively happy, was really the world I existed in. It isn’t the case, it satisfies me less and less, because I know it’s not real. . . . I can only make more work because I know the plays essentially, on a certain level, are lies, are garbage, and are junk – so I try again.”
If I understand Foreman correctly, his theater (indeed, all theater) fails fundamentally because it does not take place in the “real,” that is to say, Foreman’s art fails to synthesize into a totality with his, and his audience’s, life. Foreman, anguished by this alienation, stages it quasi-mythically; perhaps it is what Erika Munk (in 1987’s “Film Is Ego: Radio Is God”) means when she writes, “the moment when religious ritual became theatre – if indeed there ever was such a moment – was the moment of the Fall.”
But at this late stage in his career Foreman has moved beyond the search for wholeness and into the last days of mankind. In “Death,” a strongly worded essay from 2000 (and one in which he quotes Bram Stoker’s Dracula!), he expounds on his contemporary vision of the stage. It is one of empty repetition, of death caused precisely by the theater’s aesthetically determined nature:
For many years, my theater has been about death. Not so secretly. . . The theater is about death. Must be about death. Each night the actors repeat words they have memorized, gestures and movements they have been schooled in. This repetition—this is not life. This is death. The theater is a dead thing and must exploit that to the fullest— performance style must echo and evoke the dead nature of theater. The actors are dead, manipulated by me. Sometimes they stumble—then they are momentarily alive. Theater is dance of death.
If theater is death, then life is trance, Foreman seems to imply in this production, which uses both key terms metonymically for the embalmed deadness experienced by the spectator amidst “the excitement of what is happening onstage.” Perhaps ours is the real trance-state, a spiritual and sociopolitical deadness which can only be momentarily solved, and then only under the problematic guise of tourism.
In his notes to 1997’s Pearls for Pigs, Foreman writes of “the most desirable human condition, ” specifically as it applies to the theatrical experience: “[It is] that where one is able to avoid stasis – spiritual and emotional stasis – by continually subjecting oneself to the nonstatic ‘unbalanced’ state where impulse is continually permitted to introduce a creative ‘wobble’ to the straight and narrow of ‘well-disciplined’ mental life.”
Deep Trance is a world of extreme organization, a world of stasis and symmetry, a world of deadness. Indeed, twos occupy the main body of the stage: two tilting toy pianos, which are infrequently used and paired with two miniature piano benches; two altars at which the onstage figures invariably pray or slump into theatrical death; strangest of all, two well-like openings which the figures infrequently try to climb into head-first before emerging and returning to their routine (the implication is clear: there is no escape). There are even two video screens. All is smothering stasis. Has Foreman given up on his artistic project, and by extension the entire Western project, or is Deep Trance in Potatoland a last, gasping attempt at shaking his audience out of their spectatory stupor? I fear it’s the former.