Richard Foreman will turn 70 this summer, a milestone proudly announced in the program for Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead! His massive body of work now spans roughly 40 years and 45 productions with his Ontological-Hysteric Theater, not to mention a handful of films and What to Wear, last year’s operatic collaboration with composer Michael Gordon in L.A.
So it makes sense that the heavy weight of time’s passage is felt more than ever in his latest visionary work. One gnomic utterance that’s heard often in Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! is, “Maybe it could happen in my lifetime.” This is usually followed by, “Tick tock. Tick tock.” And then, “It’s broken, and it can’t be fixed.”
Like everything else that spirals down Foreman’s kaleidoscopic rabbit hole, we’re not explicitly told what “it” is. As Foreman himself cautions in the program: “RELAX! Do not work overly hard trying to understand. Know instead it’s about the elusive Unconscious Mind. Surfacing and re-surfacing (as in music). Just stay alert and notice everything that arises and asks to be ‘noticed’.”
Foreman’s work is densely populated by the hieroglyphs of his own inner world, but the result is miraculously accessible (as long as you know you’re not in for a night of tidy, narrative theater). Watching his plays is akin to stumbling into somebody else’s dream, and, in so doing, to make the dream your own.
In an interview for the Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! weblog, Foreman said, “According to studies that I read we’re sort of dreaming all the time, even though when we’re awake we’re not aware of it because our waking consciousness has taken over.” So, while Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! is itself enthralling, an attempt to describe its contents is probably about as interesting as a co-worker’s rambling description of the totally bizarre dream he had last night. You kind of had – and have until the end of March – to be there.
Foreman himself makes a whimsical mockery of narrative synopsis in a second program note: “ATTENTION PLEASE. This evening’s performance is the most accurate copy I am able to make, of a strange theatrical event I viewed approximately one year ago when, against my will, I was forcibly seized and transported by a flying saucer to the alien planet Ax-e-tron.” (It’s interesting to note that even after an alien abduction, his theater is no more or less bizarre.)
But here are some of the delirious sights and sounds that asked me to be noticed: simulated popping flashbulbs, house lights brightening and darkening, the ebbing and flowing of cacophonous techno, machine gun fire, ringing telephones and mild classical music, four beret-wearing performers with boards – evoking tombstones or parachutes – strapped to their backs and white cloth tied around their faces, a fifth performer wearing aviator goggles, newspapers taped to the walls with indecipherable black text painted on them, airplanes of various sizes dangling from above, small cabinets built into the wall with light bulbs inside, poles with soft balls on the end.
This year’s spectacle is more somber and less zany than previous Foreman spectacles, but the overall effect is haunting, vertiginous, sublime. The five performers climb up the walls and dash around the stage to form stunning tableaux with knives held to throats, massive scissors poised over limbs, elegant turquoise hoods with little eyeholes and buckets with red crosses placed over their heads. The oneiric, menacing action hangs tightly on Foreman’s trademark tension between his baroque, goth-vaudevillian ecstasy and the spare minimalism of his text.
Then there are the two massive video screens, which display footage Foreman shot with actors at a mental hospital in Lisbon, Portugal. (One of these actors is the legendary Kate Manheim, who was an integral part of the Foreman’s early development.) The use of video is still a new component in his work, and demonstrates an impressive willingness to continue pushing into uncharted waters. Most of the dialogue in Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! is spoken by the onscreen actors, who directly address the camera with blank expressions and form their own slower-paced tableaux of deathbeds, tea time and repeatedly dropped books. Their heads are sometimes wrapped in newspaper, and then the newspaper is torn off.
The relationship between the two-dimensional film and the three-dimensional live performance is as elusive as the relationship between our waking life and our twisted dreams. There are certain gestures and materials, such as the newspapers, that crossover between the mediums the way people and objects crossover unexpectedly into our sleeping world. But most of the connections between the film and the live show remain mysterious; an attempt to literalize them would be as reductive as trying to explain a dream image by looking it up in a generic dream dictionary.
One recurring question is posed by Foreman over the sound system: Are there any young children in the audience tonight? If there were,” he continues, “I would tell them this is for you and you only.” Why is this? Is it because children are more receptive to their subconscious? Or because they are the unenviable inheritors of our civilization’s tailspin? And how many naked babies can you stuff in the airplane cockpit?
These are questions meant to be left open; it’s highly doubtful Foreman is smiling in the audience, Sphinx-like, with any answers. At 70 years young, he’s more curious about life than most people a third his age. The only question that can be responded to with any certainty is, “What would winter in New York be without him?” Answer: A hell of a lot longer.
Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind is Dead! continues through April 1st at the Ontological Theater at St. Mark's Church [131 East 10th St. and 2nd Ave.]. Tickets cost $23 ($28 on Saturdays).