The New York Times

January 16, 2004, Friday



Richard Foreman's Foray Into Politics


Something hard and noisy is hammering at the door of Richard Foreman's dream world. And Mr. Foreman, the avant-garde magician famous for keeping his plays hermetically sealed, has been obliged to let the intruder in. Yes, political reality has stuck its sharp, bony head into the metaphysical puzzles and swirling illusions of Foreman Land in the shape of a would-be cowboy king with dreams of a globe-spanning empire.

This high-aspiring, dimwitted and exceedingly dangerous fellow -- whose role model just happens to be the sitting American president -- is the title character in ''King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe,'' which opened last night at St. Mark's Church in the East Village, where Mr. Foreman annually stages peerless miniextravaganzas for his Ontological-Hysteric Theater. As is customary for this director, ''King Cowboy'' is a dazzling mind tease, replete with images that somehow seem to have originated in your own head.

Yet while the production offers the dizzy theatrical joys expected of Mr. Foreman, the light of his polemical anger shows chinks in his mise-en-scène. Visually, ''King Cowboy'' is as rich as any Foreman production in recent years, transforming the tiny St. Mark's stage into a labyrinthine and lavish cultural scrapheap. But it seldom hijacks your senses the way Mr. Foreman's work usually does.

Rufus, played in grandly effete style by Jay Smith, is definitely not your standard-issue Wild West hero. He dresses like a Restoration fop, handkerchief fluttering from sleeve, and speaks in a tonier-than-thou English drawl. But oh, how he would love to fill a 10-gallon hat and wield a six-shooter to bring the world to its knees.

Amid exchanges of dislocated dialogue with his adversarial companions -- a Humphrey Bogart-like nobleman (T. Ryder Smith) and a coquette with the voice of a Bouvier sister (Juliana Francis) -- Rufus lusts after crowns and globes that intermittently dangle from above. Of course, he always wants the largest of these. And the mere prospect of violence both races and quells his dandy's heart.

Most of the stylistic Foreman signatures are in place here: the cross-cultural medley of musical fragments; the strings and poles that segment the stage; vulnerable baby dolls and menacing thugs in animal outfits (this time, bears instead of gorillas); the chorus of sinister functionaries in internationally eclectic attire. (As Diana Vreeland might have said, why not top your kilt with a tailored evening jacket and black cowboy hat?)

Nowhere to be seen, though, is the pane of plastic that has traditionally separated Mr. Foreman's audiences from the stage. Its absence allows Rufus to walk up the aisle to survey his domain, ''primed and ready to fulfill my every desire,'' as he puts it. The implicit message is that it is now impossible -- or at least irresponsible -- to isolate art from life. The same idea comes across in words chanted again and again by Ms. Francis and by Mr. Foreman, in electronic voiceover: ''Wake up.''

The script for ''King Cowboy'' is more verbose and less cryptic than usual for Mr. Foreman, although those unfamiliar with his work will no doubt still be at sea. And since a program note makes it clear that the play is a response to the politics of George W. Bush, you find yourself listening for direct topical references.

They're definitely there but rendered in poetic Foremanspeak. ''Rhyme things that don't rhyme,'' Rufus says. ''You understand -- words don't come easily to someone trying to be an all-powerful American cowboy.'' Ms. Francis exclaims, ''Oh, frigid man -- I recognize the sneer inside the cowboy voice.'' And there are many passages in which Rufus is more and more megalomaniacal.

Some of this is pretty funny. But Mr. Foreman's strength as a writer has always been his refusal to spell anything out. His scripts are most often made up of tantalizing, repeated non sequiturs that assume different meanings as you listen. ''King Cowboy'' is weighed down by literal-minded allegory, and you rarely surrender yourself to the phantasmagoria, as you long to.

That said, the staging itself is beyond fault, as are the highly disciplined, spookily silly performers. (I also enjoyed the Lewis Carroll-style songs.) No one is better than Mr. Foreman at creating the sense of a confounding universe out of joint and on a slick road to nowhere. That's the sense of the world a lot of people have these days. Paradoxically, Mr. Foreman's vision would feel far more relevant without the political footnotes.


Written, directed and designed by Richard Foreman; stage manager, Anthony Cerrrato; sound operator, Brian P J Cronin; technical director, Paul DiPietro; props master, Sarah Krainin; set construction, Michael Darling and Mr. DiPietro; costumes, Kasia Walicka Maimone; managing director/production manager, Joshua Briggs. Presented by the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. At St. Mark's Church, 131 East 10th Street, East Village.

WITH: Jay Smith (King Cowboy Rufus), Juliana Francis (Susie Sitwell) and T. Ryder Smith (the Baron Herman De Voto).

Published: 01 - 16 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 29