The Baffler

Photo: Joan Marcus

To borrow an idea from the great schlock filmmaker John Waters, it’s a shame that avant-garde works like Richard Foreman’s Idiot Savant can’t be sold the way fifties exploitation movies were: No one will be seated during the spine-tingling interspecies golf game! The only way to approach Foreman’s latest is with a sense of humor, laced with a healthy dose of trepidation. If the sight of Willem Dafoe making his entrance in a Samurai topknot, multiple layered dirndl skirts, and socks held up with garters—while he’s also carrying a birdcage housing a plastic duck, by the way—isn’t enough to scare the bejesus out of you, I don’t know what is. (Also potentially frightening: Foreman’s trademark lighting design, in which lights are trained on the house, bathing the audience in an assaultive, possibly cataract-inducing glare.)

Foreman, also the founder of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, doesn’t create plays that make literal sense as you’re watching them. The scraps you take away from this writer-director-raconteur’s elaborate in-jokes may eventually reshape themselves into a meaningful treatise on the futility of existence—or they may leave you with nothing more than a handful of air. His work is plotless, pretentious, and intentionally confounding, yet also playful—the kind of arch exercises in which characters routinely drop Zen-koan head-scratchers like “If solving a mystery is never possible, then don’t call that a mystery.”

The one concrete thing here is the pleasure Foreman’s actors, including Alenka Kraigher, as a sort of soothsayer in a velvet medieval-princess dress, and Elina Löwensohn, a hard-drinking tough cookie in a shiny Cossack’s outfit, take in this wackadoo material. Dafoe, his crazy topknot aquiver, may be having the most fun of all. There’s comedy in his eyes and murder in his soul. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Idiot Savant
By Richard Foreman.
The Public Theater. Through December 13.

The Baffler