`Miss Universal Happiness' is too flamboyant for its own good. Miss Universal Happiness. Play written and directed by Richard Foreman.

``Miss Universal Happiness'' starts with an ear-splitting scream. But an ``authoritative commentator'' pops up and tells us not to worry -- it's all part of the show, and nothing scary will happen for a few minutes yet. When things do get frightening, he adds, we should do three things: (1) Relax. (2) Wear a lead-lined raincoat for safety. (3) Pay attention. Good advice, but hard to follow. I forgot my lead-lined raincoat, and my attention kept hopping from the aggressive performances to the helter-skelter scenery and sound effects. As for relaxing, that's never easy during one of Richard Foreman's Angst-ridden productions, which cloak their murky meanings in layers of delirious imagery.

``Miss Universal Happiness'' is the first collaboration between two bold, brash, and brilliant theaters: the Wooster Group, headed by Elizabeth LeCompte, and Foreman's own Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. Foreman wrote and directed it, also contributing the bizarre stage design and thumping music. All the actors are Wooster members and associates; and the play's six-week run (through June 23) is at their home base, the Performing Garage.

On the face of it, this is a major event. Foreman's unsettling style, full of fractured phrases and pungent images, has been puzzling and enlivening the theatrical scene for years, from Off Off Broadway to Lincoln Center. Guided by artistic director LeCompte, the Wooster Group has developed an even more radical approach to stagecraft and is, in my book, the most inventive and ingenious acting troupe of the postmodern period.

As a team, Foreman and the Wooster entourage seem comfortable. This isn't surprising, since all of them have mastered one of the most challenging tasks faced by today's theatrical explorers: treating antirealistic material not only with formal cleverness, but with an emotional conviction that audiences can feel strongly and immediately.

Foreman and the Wooster also share a recent tendency to edge away from pure aestheticism, injecting a note of political awareness into their work. This reaches new heights in ``Miss Universal Happiness,'' which takes place in Latin America and features a Russian Agitator and a Soldier of Fortune, not to mention the title character -- a scruffy Statue of Liberty with a black halo -- and a Guerrilla who doubles as the Easter Bunny.

A couple of Foreman's more dubious habits keep ``Miss Universal Happiness'' from soaring into the stratosphere, though. While he evidently has something to say about Latin American problems and big-power arrogance, he shreds his ideas into allusive bits and pieces that don't fall together into a coherent whole. Ditto for the plot, which threatens to become plain at a few tantalizing moments, but instantly fades back into dreamland. The flamboyance of the piece also works against its urge to communicate on a social and political level. Foreman's physical trademarks -- glaring lights, pounding noises, frantic gestures -- steal the show, obscuring instead of underlining its meanings.

Still, it's hard to fault the production when it comes to sheer energy. Typically fierce performances come from Ron Vawter and Willem Dafoe among the men, Peyton Smith and Kate Valk among the women.

Jim Clayburgh, the Wooster stage designer, joined forces with Foreman on the visually daunting set.

I hope the Wooster and Ontological-Hysteric companies join forces again, but on more equal terms. Wooster subtlety and good humor could temper Foreman's explosive anxieties, just as his manic intensity could lend Wooster inventions an extra spark. ``Miss Universal Happiness'' gives broad hints of how astonishing such an evenly matched collaboration might be. 30{et

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK