He materializes upstage wearing dark skirts, some sort of plastic tube stuffed in his mouth, his hair tied in a spiky pony-tail, a plastic duck in a birdcage hugged to his chest. The classic Chordettes oldie Mr. Sandman is playing, and in a flash we're once again transported to Foremanland, a singular dimension of feverish theatrical provocation, devoid of conventional narrative but rich with humor and deliciously inspired tableaux.
This year, Richard Foreman's surreal solar system revolves around the hypnotic, blistering sun that is Willem Dafoe, who portrays the titular Idiot Savant with signature eccentricity. It should come as no surprise that Dafoe, the inimitable star of screen and avant-garde stage, once again proves himself a perfect instrument for Foreman's idiosyncratic reveries. (Dafoe worked with Foreman in the '80s, and is a founding member of The Wooster Group, a groundbreaking theater collective from which he's currently estranged.)
For the first time in ages, Foreman's yearly incantation is being performed not in the ritualistically-electrified confines of the tiny Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark's Church, but in one of the Public Theater's capacious rooms. As a result, Idiot Savant lacks some of the highly concentrated intensity that can thrillingly boil over in the intimate Ontological. But what the show lacks in confined combustion, it makes up for in comedy. This is easily the laugh-out-loud funniest Foreman romp in years, and Dafoe is really in his element here.
And despite the change in venue, those familiar with Foreman's aesthetic will recognize the iconic stage design—a Gothic baronial estate eclectically decorated with various curiosities (grandfather clock, feathers, Ensor-esque portraits), divided by taught strings evoking cartoonish dotted lines. Dafoe's tightly-focused yet liberated performance is well-complemented by a supporting ensemble of quintessential Ontological oddballs, who alternately vie for his affection and point arrows at him. As the Idiot Savant, Dafoe is the leathery, daffy center of the swirling fantasia, and declares that he's mainly "interested in the confusion which immediately erases the power of other people." It would be too simplistic to interpret that as Foreman's artistic mission, but to enter his theater is to embrace a delightful disorientation, where everything and nothing happens, and a giant duck with stigmata elicits inexplicable belly laughs.