Ghosts in the Machine

The amazing Richard Foreman describes his famous avant-garde productions as "theater machines." Foreman's latest "machine," Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland, absolutely fits this description. Like previous Foreman "machines" running down the decades, this one is a magical contraption that assembles seemingly random components of human experience to create something new and insightful. The experience is transformative. When you enter the Ontological Theater of St Mark's Church, Foreman's usual shop floor, the place has been decked out somewhat like Madame Blavatsky's seance studio. The walls are covered with gigantic antique "spirit photos" -- in which two portraits, one of a living person and one of a presumed ghost, are exposed within the same frame. Names (of the living person? the ghost? the photographer?) and long-passed dates are scrawled along the borders. Three-dimensional theatrical masks pop out of a few of the photos.

The spirit photos are all mounted on a slight diagonal to the stage floor, suggesting that this "machine" occupies a different plane than the auditorium, literally. Center stage is occupied by two small grand pianos, one veiled with a heavy cloth.

In the upstage wall are set two projection screens, with punched borders suggesting photograph negatives. The screens stare -- blankly, at first, and then are filled with images shot in two distant locations, England and Japan. Dressed like high-society seance participants, a small ensemble of live actors begins a "journey" to another place and time.

As usual for Foreman machines, the design elements are bizarre, surreal, and evocative, combining whimsy and unease. The seance conductor wears black tie, with vampire teeth and a frilly lace apron, emphasising his role as an attendant to the living from the undead. A gigantic garish puppet, "King Mockingbird," is crowned with tiny American flags, referencing America's mimicry of the rest of the world.

The actors open blank books and hold them up against the screens, reading the projected video images through the thin pages. Is there acting here? Yes, but the performers act as if entranced. Their coordinated speech and motion is impressive, but this is not the kind of show in which acting serves to illuminate character or forward a plot. The inhabitants of Potatoland do convey curiosity about that strange other universe -- ours, or rather, the world of the human consciousness. The Potatolanders are engaged, frustrated, and bewildered.

The human performers start their journey by taking drugs, and soon find themselves mesmerized by the parade of images on the screen. Foreman marshals the three troupes of performers -- American, English, and Japanese -- to compare the journeys of tourists to the "spirit world," to the sub- or heightened-consciousness, to actual distant climes, and of course, the best armchair tourism of all -- theatre spectatorship.

As usual, Foreman comes up with some intriguing paradoxes. "I am here before you arrive / I will be here after you have gone," the image of a performer on the screen aptly says -- but being only a projected image, recorded on a continent far away, this person is not "here" at all, ever. "Trust me / I go backwards / Trust me / I repeat myself," another chants, fulfilling her iterated prophecy even as she speaks it. "The visitor sleeps amidst the excitement of the experience," a HAL-like voice intones. To consider this mere speculative musing is a mistake.

At one point, Foreman confidently declares that "only by being a tourist can one experience a place" -- and then shatters that idea with a filmed scene on a staircase, featuring the Japanese ensemble, involving 1940s costumes, hiding, and what sounds like air-raid sirens. With varying degrees of severity and horror, New York, England, and Japan have all been attacked from the air. Ever since, the art and culture of these three places have struggled to make the receding memory of those horrors "immediate" as their survivors inevitably fade into mere spirit.

"Go to England immediately!" the Potatolanders are commanded, but this is easier said than done. They -- and we -- can see "England" on the screen, but is any flat image on a screen, any spectre from the photographed past, really "immediate" to its living spectator? Or is it the "immediacy" of trapped, distant images that leads people, in Potatoland and on planet earth, to believe in the magic of photography, cinema, and theater?

Like the imaginary time machine of H.G. Wells, Foreman's latest theatre machine takes us to "other worlds," and in so doing, compels us to examine our own with new eyes.

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