The idea occurs to me, while sitting in Richard Foreman’s jam-packed Ontological-Hysteric Theater (OHT), that he invites his viewers to experience the feeling that we are temporarily visiting from another planet. Not that we are mere Earthlings viewing a bunch of aliens before us, but instead we are given the alien’s-eye view of what the human experience might be like, without any known symbols, narrative language, or familiar archetypes of character. It might all be quite specific, but it seems deliciously up for interpretation, or maybe even post-interpretation, since whatever remainders are left can be absorbed organically, without any sense of linear story at all. And yet, the human experience often is the story, of course, always as informed by one’s own personal experiences. In the case of Astronome: A Night at the Opera, now playing through April 5th, Foreman collaborates with composer John Zorn, whose noise-metal score only furthers this experience. Zorn, a fixture in the downtown NYC music scene since the mid-1970s, creates his music from his experience in a variety of genres, including jazz, rock, classical, and klezmer. With pre-recorded tracks of loud, hardcore music with a guttural kind of gibberish language (including many bodily function-type sounds), the accompaniment sounds exactly right supplementing Foreman’s work. It seems to naturally follow the same process of breaking down into smaller parts, recreating, and attempting to express those things that cannot be named, operating almost as its own interior monologue. In this practice, both non-traditionalists merge raucously here. And despite having earplugs given out with the programs (unnecessary in my case), the moments in between musical tracks did lend an even greater intensity to the silences.
If you are an OHT veteran, you will probably appreciate this new juxtaposition of sounds, along with a few of the more familiar voice-from-above-overs provided by the writer/director himself. But for those new to Foreman, you must experience his particular artistic vision, participate in the brilliant collaborative process being offered, and possibly test your own (innate or learned?) needs for a linear narrative. Or better yet, simply approach with an open mind.
For your viewing pleasure, you are rewarded with a black, red, and green multi-level set design and a layered light scheme, inhabited by a kind of giant totem embedded on one side, attended by six semi-veiled players: Deborah Wallace, Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, Fulya Peker, Karl Allen, Eric Magnus, and Benjamin Forster. Decked out in black nose pieces, fezzes, and a kind of peasant-punk garb, they could emanate from any cultural origin or era, past, present or future. On the other side of the stage, a green-faced rock ’n rolla, played viscerally by Jamie Peterson, is separated into his own Plexiglas-protected chamber, complete with glory hole. This is a departure from the usual clear set piece separating the stage from the audience, and it’s interesting conceptually while also making the theater space feel more open. And maybe also more vulnerable. With lighting designed by Foreman and engineered by Miranda Hardy, the full house lights have never seemed quite so bright as they shine unexpectedly, or when a captivating green spotlight beckons.
The movements of the ensemble are carefully choreographed as they move through various configurations and behaviors, occasionally stopping to pose, according to some operating system of their own, sometimes robotically or otherwise involuntarily. The skilled performers often enact a kind of voraciousness, from filling up the hungry orifices of the overseeing face in the wall, but also sexually, toward a variety of inanimate objects or each other, especially when a strawberry headpiece is donned by one, and then devoured by another. The gold-chained ogre rages, while dummies and snake-like creatures with shrunken heads are alternatively abused and revered. From above, another figure resembling the Hanged Man tarot card is suspended upside-down, further suggesting ritualistic or magic themes.
The set is strewn with interrupted sequences of random Hebrew and English letters, a bejeweled Torah-shaped wooden panel is carried in and out, a blackboard is repeatedly erased, unintelligible signs and symbols are dropped from above, as the characters stomp on blank-paged books. Even the brief spoken lines express the inadequacy or futility of the written word, and maybe of all language itself, likely due to its intractable human component. One of the few spoken lines in the piece demonstrates this, garnering laughs: “Hiiii. I believe every thing that comes out of a human being’s mouth.”
All of the elements work tightly together, perhaps like the gears inside the grandfather clock we see paraded around, even though it’s stuck at straight-up 12:00. All the while a large pendulum swings almost threateningly back and forth, as a multitude of props and tools are utilized, including giant salt and pepper shakers, lacy hot pink bras, scissors large and small, bullhorns, and ping-pong paddles. Meghan Buchanan, the props engineer and costumer, must have been quite a busy lady indeed.