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Funda Duyal, Juliana Francis,
and Okwui Okpokwasili in Maria del Bosco
(Photo: Paula Court)
How many writer-director-designers are there who request the audience's presence 10 minutes before an 8pm performance, watch expressionless while they sit there, and--once everyone is settled on dramatically raked bleachers--take their place at the light-and-sound control board to pilot the show? Maybe only one: Richard Foreman. The message, even before the action gets underway, is that the audience has been invited by a modern-day Prospero into a very circumscribed and idiosyncratic world. Foreman seems to be saying: This is my domain and you'll see what I want to show you when I want to show it to you.

It's a world from which the audience is always kept separate. Foreman reminds the patrons of the implied fourth wall by making it manifest, pulling a few black strings tautly from one side of the high proscenium to the other and/or fixing a transparent plastic shield downstage. The playing area at his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, which runs almost the full length of the small, high-ceilinged room, remains basically the same from production to production: The walls are black, usually covered by stylized clocks and written remarks, and there are two entrances (stage right and upstage left). At the back of the stage is a walkway raised about five feet, reachable by a short flight of black steps.

Much of the Foreman look remains the same as he adds to his oeuvre, so the individual pieces can inspire a sense of déjà vu. But long before the arrival of Maria del Bosco (Sex & Racing Cars: A Sound Opera), Foreman's 50th production, it was quite clear that what he's actually doing is creating one extended work. He's adding chapters to a novel-drama, or maybe to a collection of short stories on related themes. Each of his productions, arriving at the rate of on or more a year, can be appreciated on its own merits; together, they provide a fascinating look at the universe through Foreman's eyes.

Because so much of a Foreman play reflects his peculiar vision, because so much is an accretion of his abundant and very personal symbols, there's no easy way to summarize what it's about or where it's going. The many props don't give too much away, although the actual hurdles set here and there on the floor are possibly meant to suggest the ubiquity of figurative hurdles. Also unhelpful are standard signposts like dialogue, of which there is very little in Maria del Bosco. Maria (Juliana Francis) and two other actresses dressed as she is, in white tights and wrinkled, knee-length pink tutus, occasionally mutter "Oh, no" in low, uninflected tones. Whatever else is spoken is done voice-over, with Foreman manipulating the dials. The phrases run to vague aphorisms such as "Silence is not golden" or "Why is violence the only poetry left?" The remarks are made under and sometimes over a soundtrack which includes, among other items that are suddenly cut short, Lotte Lehman accompanied by Bruno Walter on a Schumann lied and Cole Porter's "Night and Day" performed by unidentified instrumentalists.

Richard Foreman
(Photo: Paula Court)
As the action unfolds through a series of connected tableaux vivants, Foreman's intentions begin to make some kind of sense, and the gathering implications are both pleasing and disturbing. Maria straddles drab olive garbage cans; she and her two tutu-ed shadows pose by large white boards with black hearts painted on them; they remove a doll from a suspended model plane; they have small skulls seemingly pounded into their crotches by the five men in hoods and short kilts who carry props around and occasionally stop to dance, bent arms pumping the air. By means of these choppy, incessant activities, Foreman appears finally to make a graspable statement: That Maria, representing women today and perhaps men as well, has been desensitized by society's obsession with sex and speed. Try as steadily and compulsively as she might, she can find no way to feel emotion or satisfy her spiritual and romantic needs. Nothing shakes off her torpor. She ends as she began, unmoved and moving physically like a ballerina whose muscles have terminally tightened.

Individual interpretations of the play are likely to differ. My companion, who'd never seen a Foreman entry before this one, emerged saying he hadn't expected the piece to be so political; he had understood the baby in the plane and the skulls that appeared subsequently to as comments on the September 11 attacks. And who, other than Foreman, can say the this impression is wrong? That's the thing about personal symbols: It's not just their creator who may have personal responses. If images thrust before us are provocative enough to hold interest, as Foreman's are, that alone seems enough to deem them valid.

Foreman runs everything in his theater, and it follows that he must be pulling the actors' strings, too. That his cast members don't regularly show up on stages elsewhere may or may not have anything to do with the degree to which they have mastered the craft, but it does make it difficult to assess their abilities. If they seem to be overacting or underacting or simply not acting at all, they also seem to be doing exactly what they've been told to do. As Maria, current Foreman fave Juliana Francis, with her high cheeks and wide mouth and skinny legs, is highly effective. She makes Maria's sufferings as palpable as those of a Guido Reni Madonna. Joining her, often with arms linked like members of a corps de ballet, Okwui Okpokwasili (identified in the program as "Long-Legged Ballerina") and Funda Duyal, (as "Shy Ballerina") also etch compelling characterizations. Okpokwasili, a tall woman possessed of a magnetic beauty, frequently stares through Foreman's fourth wall as if defying the audience to disagree with what's being suggested. Duyal, shorter and pale, wears an unwavering expression of boredom mixed with deep disillusion. The scruffy men who attend to the women like five zonked-out dwarves catering to three drugged Snow Whites are Frank Boudreaux, Ryan Holsopple, Youssef Kerkour, Zachary Oberzan, and Thom Sibbitt; they, too, can't be faulted for presumably following orders to the letter.

With Maria del Bosco, Richard Foreman proves yet again that his surname is apt: He's the foreman of a strangely beautiful and ever-expanding enterprise.

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