Challenging views of 'Paradise'

As creative and thought-provoking as ever, Richard Foreman is back with his 46th play, his first book of fiction called "No-Body," due soon from Overlook Press - and a year to go with the "genius grant" he received from the MacArthur Foundation in 1995. The new play, "Paradise Hotel," is his most scathing comedy in a long while, satirizing the oversexed elements of today's society so fiercely that a sign in the lobby warns viewers about its sometimes explicit content. Some may find it too strong for comfort, but there's no denying the seriousness of the theatrical wizard who wrote, directed, and designed it. Among his many prizes are five Obies for best play of the year, a literature award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is an impressive list of honors for an artist who prides himself on the unorthodox, often challenging nature of his work. "I'm not intent on communicating things," he said in a conversation at the lower Manhattan loft where he lives with his wife, former actress Kate Mannheim, and dreams up the tragicomic visions of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, which he founded more than 30 years ago. "What does concern me is making the most dense, most beautiful diamond that I can, which refracts the [theatrical] rays in as many different directions as possible. Then, if it's beautiful and lucid enough, we'll see if other people are interested and excited by it." In many ways, Mr. Foreman feels his work is closer to modernist poetry or painting than to the entertainments on Broadway stages and movie screens. He says the purpose of his work is not to divert or distract us, but to put us in touch with parts of ourselves we normally overlook and undervalue. "In order to be adult human beings who get on with the realities of the world," he explains, "we're forced to put on the blinders of our particular culture. But it's always seemed to me that art is the one place where we can live life continually, so we don't become like a bloodless worker-bee society. We need an injection of unbridled human impulse to shake things up and keeps things alive. I know many people feel it's hard enough [just] making a living for their families and defending themselves against all the bad influences out there. But art is a place where you can contact another level of being. That's what its whole interest is." Foreman has developed a reliable routine for creating his productions, which have been staged in prestigious theaters around the world as well as his own Ontological Theater, located for the past several years on the second floor of a Greenwich Village church. He spends part of his time reading voluminously, from philosophy to fiction, and another part condensing his thoughts and fantasies into flights of free-association dialogue. He then rehearses these with carefully chosen performers on a stage that eventually becomes jam-packed with scenery, props, and paraphernalia. By the end of this process, the play and the stagecraft have merged into a boisterous whole. "I try to write little nuggets of what I consider wisdom," Foreman says, "and then subject them to all this [stage] activity, where everything in life collides and interferes with them. I'm trying to take the materials of what I think is a degraded world, and show how through changing your own perception of that world - you can take all kinds of disturbing material and make it dance so it becomes a kind of paradise." Is paradise an appropriate word to describe the constantly bizarre, sometimes nightmarish atmosphere of a typical Foreman show? "My plays are all about paradise," he insists. "They're about trying to subject a fallen world to an aesthetic re-seeing that makes it into heaven on earth. It's easy to talk about paradise in terms of creating beautiful pictures of trees and brooks and gorgeous things. I'm not concerned with that. I want to use the degraded materials of the real world, and organize them in a way that transcends the degradation." This approach is not for everyone, Foreman acknowledges, but he never fails to find fellow spirits who enjoy tuning in to his offbeat wavelength. "I find that audiences are always pretty much the same," he says, referring to his international productions and the extensive United States tour of "Pearls for Pigs," a recent play. "There's always a group of people who are hungry for this kind of thing, and a group that think I'm pulling the wool over their eyes. I will say that the best audiences I've ever had in my life were in Los Angeles, where they picked up on things and laughed in all the right places. I was delighted. I guess there are a lot of smart people there who are frustrated by all the mass media!" 'Hotel Paradise' continues at the Ontological Theater in New York through April 19. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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