Ben Horner, Temple Crocker, and Caitlin McDonough Thayerin Zomboid! (Film/Performance Project #1)
(Photo © Paula Court)
Ben Horner, Temple Crocker, and Caitlin McDonough Thayer
in Zomboid! (Film/Performance Project #1)
(Photo © Paula Court)
Richard Foreman is up to his old tricks again. The groundbreaking downtown writer-director-designer is known for his unique approach to both text and staging; he eschews traditional narrative structure in favor of a more imagistic and aural vocabulary that focuses on theme, variance, and repetition. There's a marked similarity to much of his work, which is why it came as something of a surprise last year when Foreman announced that he would no longer be making what he called "phantasmagorical stage puzzles" and was instead planning to utilize film in his future theatrical work.

His new piece, titled Zomboid! (Film/Performance Project #1), is the first in this series -- but it's not a whole lot different from what has come before it. If you were to run down a checklist of familiar Foreman techniques, you'd see that all or nearly all of them are employed in this show. Plexiglass partitions separating stage from audience? Lengths of string strung about the auditorium, affecting the sightlines? Loud voice-overs, often of slurred speech? The sound of breaking glass? Bizarre yet striking stage pictures? Seemingly random flashes of light? Yup, they're all here!

As promised, Foreman does use film in Zomboid!; it's projected onto two large screens on the tiny stage of the Ontological Theater. The footage was shot in Australia and features 15 actors -- Gorkem Acarcoglu, Margaret Cameron, Tayla Chalef, Martyn Coutts, Tara Daniel, Sue Ingleton, Kibby McKinnon, Joe Mitchell, Merfyn Owen, Rochelle Owens, Tom Pappathanassiou, Kelly Somes, Sam Strong, Wiloh Weiland, and Lucy Wilson -- in a succession of environments. Often, they are blindfolded as they deliver cryptic remarks such as, "Suppose I were to postulate those things never under control are under control backwards, how would you deal with that?" There is little or no variation of tone or emotion in the voices, but many of the actors have an undeniable filmic presence that often captivates the viewer.

Accompanying the film, which plays throughout the entire performance, five young actors -- Katie Brook, Temple Crocker, Ben Horner, Caitlin McDonough-Thayer, and Stephanie Silver -- perform live. They manipulate stuffed donkeys, move a clock tower on and off stage, and strike a succession of poses. But while the ensemble works well together, none of its individual members have the kind of stage charisma demonstrated by T. Ryder Smith, Tony Torn, Juliana Francis, and other well known Foreman interpreters.

Also missing is a sense of character relationships. Tellingly, none of the characters are assigned names and are instead listed in the program with descriptive monikers such as "tutu" (Silver, who is indeed costumed in a tutu) or "6'2" male" (Horner, who's the only male on stage, which makies the specification of his height somewhat irrelevant). None of the performers have long or meaningful speeches. Though their movements seem to have been precisely choreographed, they signify little. At times, the stage action corresponds to images we've seen on the projection screens; for example, several of the live actors are blindfolded. On at least one occasion, an actor stares at the filmic image for several minutes.

Ultimately, Zomboid! feels empty of meaning. Judging from the title of the piece, maybe that's the point. Still, it's not a good way to begin a supposedly new phase in one's artistic career.