The Gods Are Pounding My Head!

Jay Smith, T. Ryder Smith, and Charlotta Mohlinin The Gods are Pounding My Head!(Photo © Tom Brazil)
Jay Smith, T. Ryder Smith, and Charlotta Mohlin
in The Gods are Pounding My Head!
(Photo © Tom Brazil)

“I have always felt that I am a closet religious writer,” writes Richard Foreman in the introduction to his book Unbalancing Acts, “in spite of the aggressive, erotic, playful, and schizoid elements that decorate the surface of my plays.” Theatergoers who have even a passing familiarity with Foreman’s work might view this remark as an understatement. After all, this is the guy who founded the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, uses the word “metaphysical” as often he employs articles like “an” and “the,” and occasionally sprinkles Hebrew lettering and crucifixes around the sets of his shows. Though a Foreman play is never the stuff of a weekly sermon, it’s clearly the work of a man upon whom vast questions have been weighing. The auteur has titled his latest theatrical collection of theological musings The Gods Are Pounding My Head! (AKA Lumberjack Messiahs).

The show begins as two lumberjacks, Dutch (Jay Smith) and Frenchie (T. Ryder Smith), enter Foreman’s ornate, claustrophobic set. At the same time, six actors (listed in the program as the “Stage Crew”) strike poses, carry objects, and move set pieces. Every inch of the stage landscape appears to have been developed by a multinational corporation operated by a 17th-century French king: There’s a white floor partitioned on a grid, regal black-and-red plaid wallpaper, a primitive railroad train stuck on a tiny track, and a child’s slide that leads to nowhere. All signs of natural life have been obliterated save for fungi that lurk in various corners, a few daisies, and miniature doves overhead. Some of these birds carry olive branches and appear to be in flight; others face downward as if in freefall. With its odd details and apocalyptic bleakness, the setting is like something that Beckett might have called for.

Foreman is one of the few people whom it wouldn’t be pretentious to call a theater “artist.” He is obsessed with creating precise, baroque stage pictures, and he directs his actors as though they were splashes of color to be manipulated on a canvas. Some of his past productions have put the audience behind a glass wall, but this one only divides the house from the playing area with a knee-high partition. Sound, music, and text (one hesitates to call it dialogue) seem to be thrown into the mix as finishing touches to a collection of Aristotelian moments rather than functioning as what we philistines might call a “play.”

There may be no adequate way to summarize a Foreman play, but it is possible to make out assorted storylines and characterizations underneath the manic surface of The Gods Keep Pounding My Head!. Dutch is a portly, soft spoken, vulnerable lumberjack; Frenchie’s his wry straight man, with a Scottish brogue, and the two have reached a sort of impasse. (Since there’s no tree stump to be found, one must assume that they’re woodcutters of the metaphorical variety.) They meet a young woman named Maude (Charlotta Mohlin) who taunts them and leads them through strange episodes. In the course of their travels, they try to smash a mysterious pair of tablets that resemble the Ten Commandments, and they are compelled to carry giant medallions as if they were little Atlases with a pair of Earths on their backs.

Wrestling with issues that are far from small, the play examines the character’s struggles in carrying the mantle of Western civilization. Both Foreman’s and Beckett’s antiheros are at a spiritual dead end, and the best that they believe they can do is struggle on without purpose. Unlike Beckett’s characters, however, Foreman’s ultimately move from despair to hope for the future. The great heart of the world — literally brought onstage as a ghastly clump of aortas — survives, and the imperiled stone tablets hold firm despite man’s onslaught.

In a Foreman production, it’s easy for a reviewer to focus on the director-creator while losing sight of the others who make the work possible. To do so in this case would be a pity, because all of the actors deliver memorable performances and the crew helps to create an arresting environment. Jay Smith makes a 180 degree turn from the flamboyant English fop he played in King Cowboy Rufus Rules The Universe to portray the muttering, fragile Dutch. For theatergoers that have seen both shows, his versatility is astonishing. T. Ryder Smith’s Frenchie is a godsend of comic relief in an otherwise heavy play, and Ontological newcomer Charlotta Mohlin is convincing as both the delicate damsel in distress and the woman who pulls all the strings. Oana Botez-Ban’s costumes, Sarah Krainin’s props, and Daniel Allen Nelson’s sound design all complement the action nicely.

As is his custom, Foreman pronounces snippets of phrases in monotone over a loudspeaker during the play, and the actors repeat them in various styles without inflection. The announcements include excerpts from Lord Alfred Tennyson poems and non-sequitur phrases like “Bees make honey.” Just about every parody of the avant-garde has lampooned this style, but the jokers never seem to understand the spirit behind the technique; in Foreman’s hands, a bee’s journey is the human condition, and the bromide “A busy bee has no time for sorrow” is full of a palpable sadness.

Foreman has said that this will be the last play he’ill direct in this fashion and that his future work will employ more film and multimedia elements. His once-marginalized technique has gained a more general acceptance, although some detractors remain. Go to the theater at St. Marks Church and judge for yourself whether or not this show is a last hurrah or a last laugh. But remember: To be prophetic, one must first be taken for a fool.

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