All strings attached: Richard Foreman in rehearsal
Fri Oct 9 2009
You and I probably had very different Thursdays. You may have gone to your office, or your rehearsal studio, or your coal mine (we have a huge coal-mining readership), and you probably typed on a computer, or perfected Act 2, or hacked out some ore. Last week, I, on the other hand, spent two hours at the Public Theater, watching a rehearsal for Idiot Savant—the newest Richard Foreman spectacle—and had my mind quietly blown.
For two hours, the cast and crew very kindly let me watch and scribble in my notebook as Willem Dafoe and his costars Alenka Kraigher and Elina Lwensohn worked through what probably amounted to 20 minutes of the show. For a tech rehearsal, that's a blistering pace. But of course, Idiot Savant doesn't open until October 27. This wasn't tech, people. This was rehearsal. Knowing that Richard Foreman likes to practice for seven weeks with full everything (costumes, sets, etc.) is one thing; seeing it in action is another. In some ways, the rehearsal felt like the Foreman show I've always wanted to see—infinite and varying, free to rewind at every branching choice. If the finished product shows us the mind of Foreman, these rehearsals slow it down so we can see each synapse firing. Dude should sell tickets.
If you have ever seen a Richard Foreman production, probably at his home in the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, you will already be familiar with his aesthetic. This is vintage Foreman (although this time Peter Ksander is listed as codesigner). The set looks like a Victorian Egyptologist has gone insane and decorated his country seat with the spoils of his digs, only to stretch surveying lines all over the place so that he can have the pleasure of excavating them all over again.
Foreman does not see a big difference between "rehearsal" and "tech rehearsal"—from Day One, he has had full costume, sets, lights and the sounds of buzzes and crashes cuing servant-actors to bustle in with weird pictures of fruit. This has the odd effect of making things seem far more finished than they are. While I watched, nearly every line came in for a tweak (whenever there's a moment, the stage manager calls a "Stop and Write" so everyone can mark scripts).
This, therefore, is just a snapshot of where they were October 1, from 10:30am to 12:30pm. You'll have to see the real thing if you want to know what they kept.
10:30am I tiptoe in, ushered through the mazelike theaters at the Public. The tiptoeing isn't working so well, since I'm wearing boots and the risers are wooden and echoey. I collapse loudly into a chair.
In front of me, Richard Foreman and one of the many show interns are sharing the light board. The intern sits to the left, helping with programming. Foreman sits on the right, cheerfully inventing cues. There is a mallard figurine on top of the board. It remains unexplained.
Next to them is the sound table, manned by Travis Just. He brings up the zings and bop noises, as well as Foreman's patented voiceovers. Like everyone else, he seems unflappable.
Willem Dafoe is onstage in a yellow samurai skirt and topknot. "Yum yum," he says to a plum. "All I can offer is fruit and friendship, never my own private taste experience."
10:37am After Foreman tells Dafoe that he wants him to cut a line, Dafoe says he's always hated it.
Foreman: Why didn't you tell me weeks ago?
Dafoe: I follow orders.
Foreman: Fine, get me a corned beef on rye.
Dafoe: See, when you out there don't like something, you change it. Down here, onstage, when you don't like something, you fucking deal with it. That's the difference between you and us.
All of this is very cheerful and good-spirited. Dafoe has a million line-readings and infinite patience, so the constant repetition plays into his hands. He gets a lot of yardage out of that "yum yum," which he has to repeat perhaps 15 times.
10:40am Crash versus gong after "ein kleine mensch?" I suddenly realize that some of the decorations on the walls are water bottles—like in a hamster cage—of poison. Everyone does a Stop and Write.
I look around the room. Someone is gilding little buttons on craft paper. In a laundry basket right behind Foreman there is an Italian mustard tin, a wooden goblet, an old camera, a menorah and a cloth hand. If Joseph Cornell did a Foreman box, this would be it.
10:50am They cut an "Alas."
Foreman: We'll put it in the program. We'll list each bit of business that Mr. Dafoe is not entirely behind.
Dafoe: That's a fabulous game structure! And now every time the show's not going well I can just blame it on Richard.
11am Break. The set is doing a great job of showing off the theater, which (I hadn't noticed before) is full of Corinthian columns. It makes the whole space seem integrated—like we're in that weird underground cistern in Istanbul. The room onstage is lined with upholstered coffin-shaped doors. There's the usual profusion of tassels, striped strings and what look to my mole-caliber eyes like lots of pictures of Tom Skerritt. Surely not.
No one is bothering Foreman. He eats an apple. (This is thrill-ride blogging, people.)
11:05am Out comes Kraigher, who is sort of wearing, sort of driving a boat with an arch of flowers over it. She hasn't got the right sunglasses yet, and Foreman grumbles just a tiny bit.
11:10am Foreman and Dafoe are talking about whether or not either of them ever loses or gains weight. Foreman wonders why people are so surprised he is not fat. "Do I make the theater of a fat man?"
Dafoe reminisces about being at a panel (not sure when this is) back in the way back ('70s?), when everyone was feeling paranoid. There was a bang and everybody hit the floor. He chuckles saturninely. Dafoe cannot help it: He would bake cookies saturninely.
11:15am Foreman is constantly embroidering. No wonder the textures of his pieces are so astonishingly complex. He wants them to write "Sailor Baby" on Kraigher's sailor's cap. "In gold! What else? Who do you think we are?"
11:17am He notices that the megaphone on the front of Dafoe's transparent Savantmobile (like a lottery bubble, but on wheels) is droopy. "His penis may droop, but his megaphone—never!" Dafoe (to a techie): "Did someone say my penis droops?"
11:30am Foreman changes a line so that it will have a double meaning. The whole place is like a shrine to the pun. He loves it when Dafoe's line "She rushes towards me with overwhelming speed" spurs Lwensohn rushing away from him. The Idiot Savant can clearly control women with his mind, though he is also scared of them. I'm using every ounce of strength not to psychoanalyze the hell out of this play.
11:50am Clarity, thy name isn't Foreman. He gets Travis Just to play a voice, chanting numbers just loudly enough that a line is obscured. Layers, people. He loves 'em.
Noon Constant line changes.
12:10pm Lwensohn is shocked that Dafoe forgot to do an exit he had proposed the other day. Dafoe gets it—he's watched video of James Brown doing his trembling "overcome with emotion" exit. He and another actor work a hilarious bit with the servant-actor tossing a coat over Dafoe's shoulders as he shakes and judders.
12:14pm "Excuse me in advance." Dafoe burps delicately. (Journalism. You are reading it here.)
12:16pm I'm still floored at how many line-readings Dafoe manages to generate.
12:20pm We are stopped to discuss the best way to make a hat-cum-crown fit. When you are taping tiaras to the top of a hat, it can get a little unwieldy. Foreman is falling in love with the unsteadiness, though. He tells Kraigher, "Let us see it! Don't try to hide it—it's good to have a princess going, 'Oh, my crown!'"
12:30pm Dang it! A giant striped spider just flew in. But my time is done. I'll have to come back and buy a ticket to see if this time, finally, Foreman is going to show us where all those stripey webs came from....