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Alenka Kraigher and Elina Lowensohn in Idiot Savant

One of the great pleasures of Richard Foreman’s plays is that you never know what you are getting into, even when you know precisely what you are going to get. This was the case with Foreman’s latest—and, it’s threatened, last—production, Idiot Savant, which opened with an inventory of those ‘physical objects’ that would appear on the stage in the course of the evening. The list includes a boxing bag, a bloody towel, a white spider, one package, two imitation rowing boats and goes on much longer than you’d think befitting.

Enter the Idiot himself, played with sparkling intelligence and a ripe sense of mischief by Willem Dafoe. Mouth plugged and hair in a topknot, Dafoe advances slowly toward the audience, stalked by three, fez-hatted butlers whose role it is to move props, manipulate the stage’s myriad crannies and folds, and menace the title character with bow and arrow. Like the butlers in any proper mystery play, they seem to know more than anyone in the house. This may be because, unlike the Idiot, they don’t need a mouth guard to remain knowingly dumb. Thank goodness, for the sake of the play, that we are not all so lucky.

For the Idiot Savant is mired in language. In his opening lines, the Idiot explains that ‘that sexually provocative dental instrument’ plugging his speech is there to ‘save us from magical words’, such as ‘yes,’ ‘right’ and, above all, ‘me’. It is this last word which comes across most troubling for our protagonist and those who share his stage. Each lengthily speculates on their capacity to be distinct, to be singular.This metaphysical banter is, however, entirely characteristic of Foreman himself, whose some 50-odd plays over the past 40 years with his Ontological-Hysteric Theater have established him as one of the surest ‘me’s’ in avant-garde productions. His certainty of vision provides a diabolical complement to the script’s bone-deep doubt.

The set, which resembles a fin-de-siècle drawing room (Jean Des Esseintes’s perhaps, from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature), is punctuated by padded, numbered doors, off of which the actors feverishly rebound now and then, like balls caught in Foreman’s stage-sized pinball machine.

Dafoe, who cut his teeth as a founding member of the Wooster Group and thus is no stranger to downtown mannerisms, is joined by Alenka Kraigher, who plays the lissome Marie, and her foil, Elina Lowensohn’s coarse and cheeky Olga. Kraigher has the remarkable capacity to remain perfectly audible while barely warbling her lines. Captivating in her milky contortions, like a John Currin in motion, she and Dafoe exchange rich currents of tenderness and condescension that make their characters’ entrapment all the more poignant. Like the performance itself, the walls of the set ceaselessly modulate: wings open and shut, the back wall telescopes upstage, while Heather Carson’s lighting design circulates at a batty, syncopated rhythm.

Harm van den Dorpel, 'Real Collage', 2010, collage. Courtesy the artist

Then there are Foreman’s characteristic blinder cues. Visually blasting the audience from time to time, they signal a significant meanness on behalf of Foreman that is as important to acknowledge as the abundance of his imagination. The Deep Voice on the ‘god mic’, presumably Foreman himself, intervenes repeatedly to stymie his characters (‘You’ve been tricked again!’ it exclaims triumphantly), reappearing at the end as a giant duck with stigmata, engaged in a round of ‘interspecies golf’ and superciliously entertaining the entreaties (for spiritual redemption?) of Marie and Olga. It is a ridiculous denouement, suggesting that the only way out of the despotism of the hardest questions is the despotism of an absurdist vision.

The boldness of Foreman’s choices acknowledges that the theatre is not a place for benign participation, but rather one in which everyone is both captive and interloper. The humanity in his work lies in witnessing that fact, but finding them in lives far more tenuous than one’s own: his characters, and in particular, that Idiot Savant. ‘Experts are confused,’ says Olga earlier in the play. ‘They ride the mental elevators of the Idiot Savant, and discover themselves moving sideways only.’ What better way to describe the existential drama?

Joanna Fiduccia is an art critic based in New York