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Wake Up Mr. Sleepy!

Richard Foreman's latest play is completely engaging and vaguely inscrutable. logo
Joel Israel and Chris Mirto
in Wake Up Mr. Sleepy!
(© Paula Court)
There's no plot to a Richard Foreman play, only an assault of images, sounds, and ideas. Still, the premise -- if you can call it that -- of his new work, Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!, can be found in the program notes, which say that aliens abducted the director a year ago, took him to the planet Ax-e-tron, and made him watch a "theatrical event." Now, he's come back to his home at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre to re-create the performance. As it turns out, Ax-e-tron's brand of theater looks remarkably similar to his own, and the aliens are thinking about the same issues that the director has pondered in several of his other works.

As always, Foreman's ideas are engaging and the performances of his cast are beautiful to watch. He personally designs striking and elaborate sets with intricate details, directs his actors to move about the stage in precise and inventive choreography, and controls the sound design with mad-scientist concentration.

In addition, since his last show, Zomboid! (Film/Performance #1), the director has started incorporating video into his theatrical repertoire. In this show, the videos played for the audience are of a group of Portuguese actors who stare directly at the audience. Every now and then, the camera jumps to shots of them tearing at newspaper over their faces, and they say in a thick accent, "It is broken and it cannot be fixed." The statement is repeated a number of times during the performance.

From the title, one might assume that the thing that is "broken" is the unconscious mind. At one point, an actor declares that "the invention of the airplane" was a "mortal blow to the unconscious" because the world tried "to outrun" the mind. A voice over the sound system skewers the information superhighway with the line, "Click here for additional happiness." Has the pace of life today surpassed the ability of our minds to process all of the information?

If so, one might argue that there's no turning back the clock on technology, and this problem is impossible to "fix." But let's face it; there may be no way to retreat to a time before airplanes were invented, and it would be a bad idea to try to do so. Moreover, a play that uses sophisticated video, sound, and lighting can hardly be taken seriously as an anti-technology screed.

The set is painted in stark tones of red, white, and black. There are strings separating different sections of the stage; letters and numerals are spread seemingly at random; a formal division separates the actors from the audience; and there's a sculpture of an airplane on a nosedive with a group of babies in front and a doll (a cross between Barbie and Amelia Earhart) tied to the wings. These images are provocative, attractive, and vaguely inscrutable, much like the show itself.

At the end, text appears on the screen informing us that there will be no traditional curtain call. I caught myself beginning to applaud the production until I realized that perhaps my unconscious mind was simply telling me to follow a worn-out theatrical convention. So I stopped -- and found that I was the only one in the audience not paying tribute. So go ahead and clap; even the aliens will approve.

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