Richard Foreman fancies himself avant-garde. In an article he wrote in 2001 to commemorate his 50th production at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, he claims that in the 60's he created "an unusual kind of theater that many people found strange." The problem is that if Foreman's theater appeared strange in the '60s, it has become institutionalized into a museum piece today. The self-proclaimed "daring" aesthetic sensibility he developed over 40 years ago to shock looks like a self-parody now. With his newest work, ZOMBOID! Film/Performance Project #1, he cobbles together the same old props out of his surrealist toy box with inarticulate catch phrases lifted from sophomore philosophy class to create what is, essentially, a multimedia dance theater piece with a circumscribed repertoire of gestures.
His piece makes us feel comfortably smart and artsy without challenging any of our preconceptions. We know what we're going to get, and Foreman delivers: abstract nonsense spoonfed to us on feedback loops, tableaux that feature oversized, gimmicky props that have an equally over-determined symbolism, and a mishmash of random "nonevents." For all the disembodied eyeballs, dice with letters on them, Hebrew scrolls, piles of books, sledgehammers, blinding lanterns, and blindfolds that he drags into his diorama, we are left neither moved nor amused, or more contemplative.
The central motif of ZOMBOID! is a human-sized stuffed donkey and the blindfolded young people who interact with it. There is also a film playing on two screens in back of them, featuring other blindfolded people and occasional text. The text, with bludgeoning redundancy, proclaims such things as "suppose I were to postulate..." and "the inevitable donkey." These phrases, along with a few other pseudo-poetic epigrams, sound more tendentious the more they get repeated in a cloyingly smarmy voice.
The film aspect is new to Foreman's work, and he talks about it in his notes as if it were revolutionary. But it ends up seeming like just one more element of his predictably theatrical mise en scène. The stage itself is already behind a thin panel of Plexiglas—making it resemble a TV screen, though that is not Foreman's intention—and so the flatness of the film screen appears as distanced and unreal as the live action.
The live actors engage in prayerful posturing, jockey for sexual favors on all fours, play with the props, look out a lighted window in the wall of the set, and sometimes simply watch the film with the rest of us. All of this, I took it, could be a parable for the history of Western metaphysics. The game of pin the tail on the donkey might be a trope for philosophy's search to pin down the thing-in-itself, the truth of which we are categorically blind to.
The rationalism of the Enlightenment, for example, is depicted with a searchlight attached to a clock tower, while the so-called "linguistic turn" of early 20th-century philosophy is represented by a character proudly singing her ABC's. The whole show ends with a Kabbalistic revelation, as Hebrew scrolls appear to float through the set's window in an angelic flood of light. This seems a bit upbeat for the existential dark humor that Foreman often aims for.
Then again, one might read the piece as a political statement: the film of silent, blindfolded persons at times resembles hostage videos; the toy soldiers lined up along the stage front may be an obvious comment on our society's culture of war. But none of this is supported by the context of the play, which strikes a mockingly disinterested and cerebral tone. The play simply exists as an aesthetic "nonevent," a sterilized object of meditation, a cluttered space devoid of point or purpose.
In fact, the program states—in shrill, self-congratulatory prose—that one should try to avoid compositional procedures. Of course, Foreman studiously fails to avoid his own. The program also proclaims, "Ah—this moment starts to be interesting?—Toss it away!" The tone of the play, like his manifestoes, is of a mind that discards its genuine insights—a mind that has trouble taking itself seriously because it suspects it takes itself too seriously. Foreman's hyperventilating manifestoes are evidence of this, since they attempt to justify his style with theoretical explanations even though his art must succeed or fail on its own merits.
The contrived zaniness inside the Ontological-Hysteric Theater cannot compete with the reckless theatrical anarchy of real life outside on St. Mark's Street. Take the costumes, for example. The tutus, fetish gear, piercings, and berets that the characters wear look tepid compared with the costumes of the gutter punks and drifters a block away.
While Foreman has garnered nine Obies, a MacArthur "genius" award, and countless grants from public and private foundations, ZOMBOID! does not advance anything significantly innovative or interesting. By democraticizing his so-called "elitist art" to validate everyone's interpretation, he has emptied it of all intrinsic meaningfulness. To believe it meaningful, then, is merely a form of pretentiousness.