Willem Dafoe, Elina Löwensohn, and Alenka Kraigher
in Idiot Savant
(© Nella Vera)
Willem Dafoe, Elina Löwensohn, and Alenka Kraigher
in Idiot Savant
(© Nella Vera)
"I am interested in confusion," says the title character of downtown auteur Richard Foreman's Idiot Savant, now at the Public Theater. And indeed, the often frustrating piece on view may puzzle audience members, despite a stellar central performance from Willem Dafoe.

The actor -- who cut his teeth on experimental performance prior to finding fame on the big screen -- plays the Idiot Savant within the show. His magnetic stage presence serves him well, as he moves with alternating slow and quick movements while growling some of his lines and shouting others. His is a nuanced and physically demanding performance that is consistently engaging, even if you're not always sure what he's supposed to be doing.

The show has no real plot, although there is a definite arc to the performance as Foreman explores themes relating to language, gender dynamics, and religion. He displays images such as a man dressed as a large duck raising his arms to reveal the stigmata on his hands, and peppers his script with phrases like "a taped mouth means all possible words are eliminated." And yet, even with such overt symbolism, coherent meaning remains elusive. Moreover, despite the stylish presentation, there are several moments that seem to try too hard to be profound and instead merely come across as tiresome.

Those who have seen any of Foreman's prior work are sure to recognize many of the writer/director/designer's signature devices: strings and other thin obstacles are placed between actor and audience; loud buzzing noises are heard; bright lights flood the stage; and voice-overs repeat certain phrases over and over again. Such techniques may have once served to challenge the passivity of the spectator, but now seem somewhat clichéd.

In addition to Dafoe, the cast includes Alenka Kraigher, who is also quite good as Marie, primarily speaking in an unrushed, somewhat detached tone of voice and traversing the stage in a series of stylized poses. Elina Löwensohn is not quite as sharp as Olga, although she has a few funny bits. Joel Israel, Eric Magnus, and Daniel Allen Nelson appear as three servant figures whose primary job is to move the production's many props on or off the stage.

Foreman's move from his home at the tiny Ontological Theater to a major Off-Broadway house like the Public could expose his work to new audiences. Whether they will be appreciative of it or totally at a loss as to what to make of it remains to be seen.