Foreman Is Still Foreman Of High-Energy Theater

The director delivers yet another artistically vigorous play

It is entirely possible that someday, when least expected, a commonplace word or idea might spring from Richard Foreman's overcrowded mind. But such an event has not happened so far in his incredibly active career, and the wacky title of his latest play - "Permanent Brain Damage" - lets us know from the start that the trend isn't about to change.

Foreman has written, designed, and directed more than 40 productions since founding his aptly named Ontological-Hysteric Theater in the late 1960s.

Along the way he has picked up a worldwide reputation, seven Obie awards, a lifetime achievement prize from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, to list just some of his honors.

He can produce a moneymaking hit when he wants to, as he proved when his version of "The Threepenny Opera" became a long-running off-Broadway success.

But his own vision is what matters most to him, and he's clearly determined to explore it for a long time to come.

Not that his vision is easy for others to keep up with. As outlined in a program note, his new play sounds clear enough: "an angry man, disillusioned and weary of life, nevertheless sustains the blind faith that something amazing and beautiful will emerge from the chaos surrounding him."

The show is more challenging than the synopsis, though, since "chaos" is the operative word here.

In the old Foreman tradition, his pocket-sized stage is crammed with gadgets, gimmicks, and props meant to reflect the teeming psychological life of the main character - and also of the playwright, as he explores "that dense babble of signs and energies out of which normal, everyday life ... surfaces as the transitory, heartbreaking thing it really is."

Foreman has described his works as "unbalancing acts," and his latest is a fine example of this genre, filling its hour-plus running time with intellectual thrills, emotional spills, and artistic mysteries as impenetrable as they are tantalizing.

A hard-working cast of six performers (plus Foreman's own voice on tape) brings three-dimensional reality to characters identified by appearances (In a White Suit, With Flowers in Her Hair) instead of names.

Inspired less by popular entertainers than by Gertrude Stein and other modernist authors, Foreman is a unique phenomenon in American theater, churning out high-energy evenings as fragmented as vaudeville shows, as tightly knit as TV sitcoms, as densely textured as the most concentrated poetry.

It's a pleasure to report that his career is racing along as vigorously as ever.

*'Permanent Brain Damage' continues through March 9 in the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark's Church. Foreman's next play, 'Pearls for Pigs,' will have its world premire April at the Hartford Stage in Hartford, Conn., and will begin an American and European tour next fall. His first book of fiction, 'No-Body,' is coming soon from Overlook Press.

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