A vision like no one else's about how people and things relate

'Penguin Touquet' Written and directed by Richard Foreman. Presented by the Ontological-Hysteric Theater and Joseph Papp. This is a stunning show on many levels. Technically, it's a formidable achievement. As an act of aesthetic exploration, it's staggeringly adventurous. And its brilliant peformances -- especially that of Kate Manheim in the main role -- are all the more so by virtue of the uncharted territory in which they occur.

Once in a while Richard Foreman pops into the mainstream, directing a Broadway play or an opera. But his heart stays firmly planted in the avant-garde.He is founder of somethimg called the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, which produced 16 of his shows before closing its downtown loft a couple of years ago. Now the troupe has moved to Joseph Papp's Public Theater, where Foremania is back in full flower.

And a dark, exotic flower it is. Foreman's vision is like nobody else's -- mechanistic, almost unbearably precise, and based on the notion that strange resonances can pass between humans and objects, if only we plumb things deeply enough. Foreman wants to bridge the gap between "inner" and "outer," using theater as a kind of steppingstone between the world of objects and the world of ideas.

Sound complicated? Yes, but amazing to watch, and sometimes very funny. There's a humor in Foreman's plays (those I've seen, anyway) that never quite vanishes. And this -- along with a sense of spectacle -- rescues them from the black hole of utter obscurity even when they bite off more of the universe than they're prepared to chew.

Here's an example of how Foreman works. "Penguin Touquet" is full of references to fish soup. That's because fish soup is a liquid, madem of fish, in whichm fish could (theoretically) swim. Hence fish soup is "the ultimate substance"! Why? Since in the same way, according to a program note, "we humans are inside and outside the world as we experience it, suffer it, and constitute it . . . all at the same time."

But enough of this stuff. Foreman's program notes are vastly less invigorating than the work itself. Along with fish soup, "Penguin Touquet" also contains a restaurant, a barber, a snowman, giant silver darts, several globes, a row of cabbages, a Dangerous Man, a Waiter Who Drops a Big Tray, and a town called Great Poetry. Oh yes -- and a couple of penguins, larger than life. Along with many other things and people, these have been choreographed into about 90 minutes of zany intellectual extravaganza, rigorously planned and immaculately exacted.

The one thing missing is real human emotion -- and it's serious omission. Foreman's vision is so distanced, his explorations are so far-flung, that you begin to feel you've floated right of the planet Earth. This effect is heightened by the black-and-white settings, the outlandish musical score, and the feelings of dread (often toppling into panic) that envelop the heroine who wanders through this metaphorical wilderness like Alice in a Wonderland gone mad.

The intensity of the experience is impressive. Yet while Foreman opens up many ideas for us, he offers very few feelings, aside from his weird humor, made from an unsettling mixture of whimsy and worry. In the absence of shared emotion, the sense of dream verges on nightmare, and we hesitate to enter Foreman's world as wholly as we might.

Good as this production is, I miss the plain fun that Foreman sometimes finds when he directs operas by Stanley Silverman, whether "Elephant Steps" a decade ago at Tanglewood, or "Madame Adare" a few weeks ago at New York City Opera. "Penguin Touquet" partakes more of the mechanized trickery that marked his last production in the old loft theater, "Blvd. de Paris (I've Got the Shakes)." It's memorable work, but there's someting grating about it, like the music of a very good yet very uningratiating punk-rock band. The same thing happens when I see Foreman's videotapes: Though I admire them, I feel more at ease holding them at a comfortable arm's-length distance. 'God Is Dead My Radio' 'What Happened on the Way Here?' Performances by Spaulding Gray. Presented by the Kitchen Center for Video, Music, and Dance.

The Kitchen, an experimental outpost in lower Manhattan, recently brought in actor Spaulding Gray for a couple of media-oriented performances. In the first, he gave brief improvisations -- free associations, really -- suggested by phrases from a live radio newscast. In the second, he and a colleague (Ron Vawter) invited members of the audience to join them onstage and talk about what happened on the way to the theater, or any other topic that came to mind.

In the past couple of years, Gray has brought a radical simplicity to much of his work, developing "monologues" in which he speaks directly to his audience. But the risk and spontaneity can fade from such performances as soon as they get settled into a pattern. They can become as crystallized as the lively readings he occasionally gives from his written work. The shows at the Kitchen were Gray's attempt to put himself and his spectators back on the edge of experimentation, by dispelling any chance of predictability or routine.

Though it's a commendable idea, it only half worked. The radio piece, fascinating as it was, lost through constant fragmentation what it gained through sheer intensity, while the audience-participation piece was too loose and scattered to generate any effect beyond a few good laughs. With his deeply literary sensibility. Gray does best when spurred by plainly spoken words -- from a dictionary, perhaps, as in an earlier work -- rather than electronic helpers or randomly chosen guests. Through most of his show at the Kitchen he succeeded only in bringing a touch of Johnny Carson to bohemian SoHo. And we expect more from this gifted innovator.

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