By Bill Marx
Is it possible for the avant-garde to become nostalgic about itself? That ironic question drifted through my mind as I watched Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance), the latest play from heralded, veteran, New York experimental director Richard Foreman. I was down in New York last weekend and caught a preview performance of the piece (running through June 2) at The Public Theater (a co-production with Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre). I found the just over an hour long show to be an enjoyable if somewhat familiar journey through the slyly antic (perhaps increasingly antique) theatrical imagination of Foreman, who continues to draw on the same surreal, dioramic techniques he has exploited over the past 45 years. Granted, his use of tried-and-true eccentric tools is reassuring, yet it is also disheartening because in his hands dada has been transformed into a kind of echo chamber. Even the unconsciousness can fall into a rut—perhaps that is what the show is about. . . .
This is not to say that the evening doesn’t offer something refreshingly different given the conservative, commercial drift of our times. American theater clings to realism for dear life, but Foreman continues to snub his nose at audience-pleasing plausibility and logical message-mongering. Old-Fashioned Prostitutes proffers an elliptical non-narrative whose playful loop-de-loops are interrupted (perhaps guided?) by unpredictable snatches of truncated music and commanding voice overs (“End of Play!”), its eccentrically garbed figures sliding from one side to the other of a gangway-shaped performing space. The amusing set could be described as a box-of-unconsciousness festooned with letters from the alphabet, suspended strings, pillows, and sliding doors.
What’s new here is that an element of pathos has crept into the machinery, a sense of curdled mortality, as if Foreman is beginning to acknowledge that his mental gears are grinding down, or at least they are in search of an inspiring anima. Here we have an aging man, Samuel (Rocco Sisto), a book pasted to his chest, recalling (and recalling) his encounter with a lively, flapper-esque prostitute named Suzie (Alendka Kraigher). Did they ever touch? What role did she play in his life? Is everything a fantasy? Foreman tosses up the possibilities like confetti before blowing them away with a thunderous shout of “End of Play.” Whiffs of eroticism are overwhelmed by the brainy uncertainties and calibrations of Sam, assisted by the effusions of the melodramatic chorus members, Sam’s friend Alfredo (David Skeist) and Gabriella (Stephanie Hayes), Suzie’s cohort. Nicolas Noreña’s Bibendum (aka Michelin) provides big time sound effects (a banging drum) and moves props on and off stage.
Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, along with flickers of Tennessee Williams and F. Scott Fitzgerald, hangs somewhere in the background of this scrambled memory play, from its suggestions that precious opportunities for love were abandoned to Samuel’s (!) nervous intimations of coming oblivion. But the presence of prostitution complicates the fractured existentialism. Who is selling out who in this play? The opening moments of the production serve up a wry answer: the statement “End of Play” is followed a a blackout. Perhaps we have been had. Ultimately, no solutions are given, but Foreman directs his script with his usual implacable sense of timing, his cogs greased to an impeccable shine. The performers handle Foreman’s demand for vocal emphasis over physical movement—a form of deadpan eloquence that twists and turns syllables into weirdly elongated shapes—with aplomb.
Something emotional (perhaps even passionate) whirls underneath the well-worn modernist pieties of Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, though not to the point of disrupting the daffy routine. Those who have never encountered the director’s flaky, funhouse vision should take this chance to see the work of an American original. Judging by this play about endings, Foreman doesn’t feel he is getting any younger.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.