AS a playwright, director, and stage designer, Richard Foreman is a modernist down to his bones.
Like most theater artists, he has an abiding interest in the ability of language and performance to capture deep meanings and convey them to an audience. But like 20th-century innovators in many artistic fields, Foreman is also fascinated with the physical properties of the materials at his disposal - the words, behaviors, and objects he manipulates onstage. Resembling an abstract sculptor more than a conventional dramatist, he serves as a choreographer of images rather than a spinner of tales.
This approach is perplexing for spectators who expect traditional storytelling. But it has captivated a hardy band of Foreman followers ever since he founded his Ontological-Hysteric Theater in 1968 - about 30 plays, four books, and eight opera librettos ago.
Foreman's latest extravaganza, ``My Head Was a Sledgehammer,'' is more subtle and savvy than its aggressive title (recycled from a couple of earlier Foreman productions) would suggest. One of its three characters is a professor, committed to intellectual understanding and the search for hidden structures in the world. The other two are ``devoted students,'' who alternately respect and reject the barely comprehensible teachings he flings in their direction.
Although the action takes place in a surrealistic classroom, full of threadbare books and empty blackboards, it makes equal sense to imagine the setting as the inside of someone's overactive mind - perhaps the professor's, perhaps the playwright's, or perhaps our own as we watch the drama.
Foreman has long embraced the notion of human life as an endless oscillation between outer and inner worlds - material surroundings, on one hand, and the realm of thought and intuition, on the other. His new play shuttles between these domains as quickly and continually as his characters bounce between logic and instinct, coherence and incoherence, thoroughly reasoned sense and utterly lunkheaded nonsense.
Some of the dialogue refers directly or indirectly to events in the everyday world, including such academically related matters as the wielding of intellectual authority and the possibility of sexual manipulation in dealings between men and women. These are the primary subjects of David Mamet's brilliant drama ``Oleanna,'' which happens to be onstage a couple of short blocks away from Foreman's show, and may be an unstated target of the mischievous humor Foreman deploys here.
In other parts of Foreman's play, the words and gestures are puzzling and even inscrutable, at least on first acquaintance. But this comes with the territory, since to ``explain'' the mysteries of imaginative life would be to reduce and confine the very things Foreman wishes to explore and celebrate. If his head is indeed a sledgehammer, its blows are aimed at all attempts to stifle the ``manic silliness'' that the program notes identify as ``one avenue toward poetry'' in our highly imperfect but ultimately redeemable world.
The play is acted with ferocious energy by Thomas Jay Ryan as the professor and Jan Leslie Harding and Henry Stram as his students. The production's other major credits all belong to Foreman, who has done his usual bravura job of decking out the stage with unexpected props, hallucinatory sculpture, and lines of string that lend a near-subliminal sense of order and lucidity to the proceedings.
* `My Head Was a Sledgehammer' continues through March 27 at the Ontological at New York's St. Mark's Theater.