'I've Got The Shakes' Is Richard Foreman at His Best

The unorthodox playwright delivers his most appealing play yet


Written, directed, and designed by Richard Foreman.

At the Ontological at Saint Mark's Theater through April 9.

I've frequently observed that a typical Richard Foreman play invites us to enter a world of dreamlike fantasy and transcendence, but often makes us feel we're trapped in a nightmare instead.

This is partly because of the unusual way he designs his productions -- surrounding the performers with bizarre props, enigmatic placards, arbitrary lines of string, and lights that shine at the audience as well as the stage.

But ultimately, the disorientation comes less from these trappings than from the fractured plots and fragmented dialogues that carry the meanings Foreman wants to explore.

The texts of his plays are as dense, allusive, and nonlinear as the more complex varieties of modern poetry, and his directorial techniques are meant to enhance -- not simplify -- the challenges they present.

Having noted this, I hasten to add that I'm not complaining about Fore- man's unconventional approach. Far from it. As difficult as his plays can be to interpret, the best of them carry an aesthetic power -- and at times an intellectual resonance -- that's as stimulating as it is mysterious.

The most exciting thing about Foreman's latest production, ''I've Got the Shakes,'' is that it has more emotional appeal than any play he's presented in years. He has always possessed a gift for eliciting deeply felt, even passionate acting from the performers who play the strange, sometimes inexplicable characters in his surreal scenarios. But this time he has outdone himself, collaborating with a talented cast to weave a spell that's extraordinary by his own high standards.

Presented by the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, his longtime production company, it opened recently at the Ontological at Saint Mark's Theater.

The heroine is Madeline X, a woman who knows she's a teacher but has no idea what she's supposed to teach. Faced with this predicament, she decides to make herself ''available'' to whatever presents itself. This plunges her into a paradoxical ''mental dance,'' as Foreman's program notes put it, hungering for meaning in a world where ''life itself is ready to upset every apple cart, to turn every received idea upside down, to reverse every perspective.''

By her side are three other characters: a wide-eyed girl named Lola Mae Dupray, a feisty Russian woman named Sonya Vovovonich, and a Jewish sage named Schlomo Leviticus, who could be seen as an offensive ethnic stereotype if Foreman's universe weren't so utterly singular that ordinary judgments of such matters seem beside the point.

As if to stress the continuity that runs through his many plays, Foreman has lately been recycling bits of material from his earlier works. The title of his last production, ''My Head Was a Sledgehammer,'' used to be the subtitle of a 1983 play called ''Egyptology,'' and ''I've Got the Shakes'' was formerly the subtitle of a 1977 work called ''Blvd. de Paris,'' wherein the ''shakes'' consisted of oscillations between physical and mental realms of existence.

Madeline X is in a similar shaky situation, only she faces it with a humor and humanity that few of Foreman's recent plays have included.

''I'm supposed to do funny things based on my own life,'' she says in an early scene. ''That's part of the deal -- but I have in me no funniness. I know, I'll be somebody -- who isn't funny.'' Which is, under the circumstances, a very funny thing to say. And also a subtly poignant thing, as Madeline and her companions search for sanity, stability, and self-identity in a situation that seems determined to provide none of these.

In the leading role, Jan Leslie Harding shows a rare ability to shift emotional gears at a moment's notice, while walking the thin line between reality and hallucination that Foreman's text requires. Mary McBride is hilarious as the childlike Lola Mae, and Rebecca Moore and Michael Osano do well with their more-caricatured roles. Foreman designed and directed the play with his customary originality.

*Richard Foreman's latest collection of stage works, ''My Head Was a Sledgehammer and Oth- er Plays,'' will be published by Overlook Press this spring. A volume of fiction by Foreman is due from the same publisher in the near future.

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