Richard Foreman says he is doing something new. Again. But despite his intention to create what he calls a "fascinating event that ... makes a new way of 'being,' " the resulting spectacle is a collection of images, sights, and sounds that manages to maintain, at best, mild interest. If this is the "new" Foreman, then it may be time to stage some of the classics instead. Foreman's latest performance piece, Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind is Dead!, marks his second exploration into combining live action with video. The first, Zomboid, has many similarities with this piece. Both have the same kind of setup, which his company, the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, bills as "a new kind of theater in which film and live action trace parallel contrapuntal dream narratives." What that means is a video plays in a room, and its narrative doesn't have much to do with what the characters are doing onstage. Both Zomboid and Sleepy feature a narrator whose utterances supposedly have some kind of deep, philosophical import. In both plays, this voice-over says, "Suppose I were to postulate …"
So, let's postulate. Is this really a new kind of theater? Foreman's career has spanned more than 40 years, since he founded the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in the late 1960's. Since then, his plays have earned him nine Obie Awards and an honorary doctorate, as well as numerous books, lectures, and scholarly articles devoted to his work. Obviously, he has done something right. And more often than not, he has done something new.
But this piece doesn't seem new. It has a retro feel to it; the setting—baby dolls, a mannequin dressed in a veil, books open on the walls, and endless writing scrawled across every available surface—seems to represent a confused history of various artists and their movements, from Artaud to Dada to Brecht.
Sleepy also features four actors wearing slightly different military-style uniforms. They run around on the stage, blinding themselves with handkerchiefs, climbing up on walls, and pointing to an airplane attached to the ceiling that is driven by a gang of baby dolls. The actors have maybe five or six lines throughout the performance.
Most of the "dialogue" is given to the creepy-sounding narrator (Foreman himself), who slowly repeats koan-like mantras, such as "the invention of the airplane ... a mortal blow to the unconscious." While the actors cavort about, a video plays on two walls at the same time. It shows images of different characters covering their eyes with handkerchiefs, picking up and dropping books, or standing in front of the camera, staring at the audience.
The piece doesn't seem that different in its "counter-narrative" from plays that others have been doing for years, such as Jonathan Zalban's WTC or The Waltz of Elementary Particles by Theater Lila. Zomboid and Sleepy both have oversize props and a kitschy potpourri of mismatched, albeit visually stimulating, objects lying about the stage, just as earlier Foreman pieces do. But the video seems like one of those modern art videos at the Whitney Museum that is interesting for 10 or 15 minutes but not for over an hour, even with live action.
Was the old Foreman something that needed that much changing? With his "new" work, he hopes to "avoid boredom" (he mentions that "boredom will be avoided" more than once in his online blog about this production of Sleepy, so it was obviously a concern). And the audience has much to look at, between the actors and the video. Yet the focus on the video diminishes the value of the actors onstage.
In an older Foreman piece—say, Symphony of Rats—even if it left you scratching your head as you left, you were sure to see some creative and entertaining segments. These would be mini-narratives where different characters' seemingly random actions added up to a cumulative effect that made sense. There was a payoff. Not so here. With Sleepy, what we get are repetitive motifs. Yes, Foreman is trying to say something about the unconscious mind, even if it's not clear what it is he is trying to state. But what results is not even an intellectual exercise.
There are some bright spots in the performance, moments of synchronicity when the video and the live action come together and give some sort of aesthetic pleasure. The piece is, after all, by Richard Foreman, who has managed to make an impressive career writing and directing theater that has always been outside of the mainstream. But such moments are far too few.