This week in TONY, a very apt twofer: a mixed-media spectacle by Richard Foreman called Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead! and a revival of Wallace Shawn’s 1990 monologue, The Fever.
Foreman's and Shawn’s careers have complemented one another for years. Both are masters of blunt but surgically precise language that insinuates itself into your conscience (or unconscious), and, at its best, forcibly realigns your basic relationships to objects and people. Foreman attacks your philosophical certainty that perceived reality is solid and readable, while Shawn picks away at social morality, especially where it intersects with Western materialist values. Each, in his own way, aims to make you feel uncomfortable, unbalanced, sickened or dizzy. Members of a cloistered coterie of the illuminated. Or perhaps the dis-illuminated.
Shawn and Foreman—two fiercely intellectual, slightly funny-looking fellows—are kindred spirits. (Alisa Solomon thought so: she had them both on a panel for CUNY last year.) Foreman cast Shawn in his (only) film, 1981’s Strong Medicine, in a nonspeaking role. Watch it here; Shawn appears in the first five minutes at a party scene. You can’t miss him, to the right of the mesmerizing early-Foreman star (and wife) Kate Mannheim. Added treat: Ron Vawter's uncanny, steely deadpan.
Shawn and Foreman: Booklength comparative monograph, anyone?
For years, I’ve cherished their work in different ways. In 2004, I had the good fortune to interview Shawn for TONY.
And before that, in 1997, I appeared in Foreman’s Pearls for Pigs as a Large Male Dwarf (one of four weirdly costumed, mute movers of props & scenery). Over several weeks of intensive rehearsals, Foreman orchestrates an astonishingly dense and self-contained network of sound loops, flashing lights, stylized movement, coordinated tightly with video projected on two large screens.
The 65-minute Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! triggers a typical reaction curve: Excited wonder and stimulation at Foreman’s multilevel riot of dadaist bric-a-brac; tense amusement and bursts of comic release at the initial antics of his strangely clad, silent stage technicians. Then, after about 30 minutes, a feeling of fretfulness and vague boredom sets in, as the repetition of phrases, actions and sound effects starts to feel like one huge undifferentiated wash. At the fifty-minute mark, one can start to feel truly antsy and bored, wanting to sleep but unable to, due to the unpredictable use of blinding lights and loud noises. Finally, remembering that the show is only a bit more than an hour, the spectator gives in to the sensory drumming and tries to find significance or cohesion in the sequences. Like a laboratory rat, the spectator’s mind races down one blind alley after another. Then, suddenly, it’s over. You applaud. No bows. You leave.
Sounds pretentious and headache-inducing, maybe? Not at all. It’s simply a yearly pilgrimage into the antic, forbidding cranium of Richard Foreman and I seriously, frivolously enjoy it. (I would like to see the work presented in a matinee performance for kids. See how they react to it. As I recall, there’s nothing inappropriate for children.)
I hear from a friend that Richard is worried about the fact that the Ontological houses have not been completely sold-out. Who knows if that’s a result of ticket prices (slightly higher), lack of media attention or if his audience is, um, dying off faster than it’s being replenished by impressionable undergrads.
I bought Shawn’s The Designated Mourner on the remainder pile at Saint Mark’s Books in 2000, read it, breathless, in one sitting that night, then heard weeks later that it would be produced in NYC that summer with Shawn, Larry Pine and Deborah Eisenberg. Directed by André Gregory. Site-specific production in a seedy, abandoned men’s club in Wall Street. Ravishing. Saw it twice. One of the most moving theater experiences of my life.
The Fever, which runs about an hour and 45 minutes, is physically comfortable compared to the hard seats and sensory barrage of Wake Up Mr Sleepy! You even get a free glass of champagne before the performance if you join Shawn onstage 30 minutes before curtain Obviously, Shawn and his director Scott Elliott, are making the audience complicit in the subject matter of the play: sophisticated, complacent, well-to-do urbanite becomes aware that his culture and lifestyle is bought and paid for by the pain and death of the third-world poor. The speaker, called the Traveler, alternately wallows in self-lacerating guilt and justifies the systematic rape and murder of any uppity peasants. In 1990, reviewing the premiere at the Public Theater, Frank Rich derided it as "a musty radical-chic stunt destined to be parodied…a brave, sincere and almost entirely humorless assault on the privileged class by one of its card-carrying members." I wonder if today Rich finds the work so old and laughable? In all honesty, I'd rather read what Rich has to say today than Charles Isherwood's eloquent but flamboyantly heartless barbs in the same paper.
Shawn has created a body of work that, as far as I can tell, is unparalleled, except perhaps by Brecht: a theater of tragic social connectedness, in which he tries to honestly examine the social relations of rich to poor, leaving the audience keenly aware of its part in a system of rewards, violence, comfort, deprivation, sexual exchange and moral indifference. Shaw, Barker, Kane and Maria-Koltès have mapped this territory too, but Shawn is alone in terms of fusing an intensely personal vision with larger philosophical concerns. No one can match him for his charming, garrulous Everypersons who justify the most deplorable world-views, who worship the logic of hegemony and self-interest. He doesn't ignore comedy or grotesqueness, and he performs much of The Fever in the squishy, squawking persona that has served him in numerous comic-relief film roles and cartoons. I love the tension between interior and exterior criticism in Shawn: every time I read or see his work, I feel like there’s a tug-o-war between a sort of monstrous, misanthropic despair and a kernel of humanitarian hope.
Now, if only Shawn would write another play. The Designated Mourner was his last—and that was 1996! Surely current events have been spurring him on. Then again, if governmental atrocities outpace your imagination, despair might set in. When I asked him three years ago if he were working on a new play, he came back with this wonderfully Shawnian response—diffident, halting, pained but gallant and neatly circumlocutory:
I continue to believe…that if I could…you know…finish something and show it to the world…then people will say, "He wrote something new!"
There’s the respect in which he differs greatly from Foreman, who churns out a new machine every January with flawless regularity.
NOTE: Here's a fine, unofficial Wallace Shawn site with descriptions and production details of his work. Includes a link to the stunning 2002 WNYC audio version of The Designated Mourner. And here on Gothamist is an interview with Fever director Scott Elliott by John Del Signore.