By Marc Robinson
Panic! (How to Be Happy!)
By Richard Foreman
Ontological Theatre at St. Mark's
131 E. 10th St.
Jan. 9 to Apr. 13, 2003
Despite the caffeinated sound of its title,
its characters' libidinal bluster and short attention spans, and
the violence cresting and subsiding so regularly it tears at the
very seams of the stage, Richard Foreman's new production, Panic!
(How to Be Happy!), is in fact most compelling when seen
as a study of immobility. Its four main actors--two women, one
dressed in black and the other in white, and two men, one speaking
in a falsetto and the other in a low growl--embody the war of
alternatives inhibiting all decisive action and thought in their
world. Balance, here, doesn't foster well-being. Instead, it arrests
at their highest intensity numerous pairs of irreconcilable longings.
Sexual obsession vies with revulsion. Spiritual seeking pulls
against secular cynicism. Enthusiasm for the future can't triumph
over preoccupation with the past. The panic envisioned in the
title would be a relief. Characters could then release their pent-up
energies until they're spent--learning, at last, "how to
The few times they do break loose, they
no less abruptly reassert the kind of decorum peculiar to the
Ontological-Hysteric Theater--in the production, one character's
lazy-eyed anomie, another's impacted resentment, a third's tightly
wound cheerfulness. Unself-consciousness, panic's surrender to
instinct, is forever deferred by these pendulum swings in mood,
if not permanently squelched by the characters' analytical habits.
They recoil from their every act to judge it, unable to resist
contemplating all the options they didn't choose.
This picture of violent ambivalence furthers
an argument Foreman has been waging with himself ever since Pearls
for Pigs (1997). There, he wondered openly whether his familiar
solipsism was losing its ability to nourish him. No longer was
it reliably steering him to knowledge buried beneath mere self-awareness,
he implied, nor causing epiphanies about matters beyond the self
altogether. The mental transcendence he sought was coming into
ever greater conflict with the body's more pressing, less exalted
demands. It was a dramatically enthralling crisis, as were the
efforts to escape the self by abasing it, fracturing and dispersing
it, or renouncing the scene of its crisis--the theater--altogether.
Now Foreman seems to plunge deeper into
doubt, soaking in it rather than fretting over its symptoms or
searching for what, in another play, he called "the cure."
Panic! is among his most claustrophobic works--a quality
made apparent by the fact that none of many onstage exits leads
anywhere except deeper into the same setting. These spaces--a
confessional-like cabinet, a hideaway behind an upstage flat,
two inner sanctums, and a pair of theater boxes above the stage--match
the recesses and compartments of a mind tormented by its own ingenuity.
Like the actors moving through these stages-within-stages, thought
itself moves through an argument, only to find it hasn't gone
anywhere except deeper into its first idea. "He goes where
no man has dared to go," are the hopeful opening words of
Panic! But the promise of such adventurousness pales
with the second line, "I shall not enter this tomb,"
and grows ever fainter until, by the end, the characters are mentally
paralyzed, the objects of other people's adventure, destinations
rather than travelers: "That thing entering the room,"
says a voice at the end, referring to an anthropomorphic object
that could just as easily be another idea or emotion. “I forget
what to name it, but I’d better think fast."
The play's inwardness derives from more
than just this narrative of creeping passivity. Almost all the
text, like that of Permanent Brain Damage (1995), is
spoken by Foreman himself, in ominous voiceovers that sink over
the stage like fog or (in deliberate mockery of its heaviness)
in high acapella chant--existential plainsong. He speaks from
within a deep solitude--resigned to its privations when not actively
rebuffing the attentions of others. "Never show true feelings
to people hungry for mutual affectionate behavior," he says.
"Nobody can be somebody's spiritual helpmate." Foreman
now seems to choose self-reliance only because other kinds of
kinship have proved illusory or disappointing, or been lost as
he hesitated over their cost. When this Foreman declares that
"I already love myself" or that "I can choose my
own private direction," the familiar sentiments sound new
because they are voiced against threats to his autonomy, or, more
often, in the wake of a general renunciation of an external world
that has betrayed him.
It's hard to tell which is stronger--paranoia
or self-righteousness, or simple bitterness at the failure of
art to rescue him from life. He speaks of his "enemies,"
warns himself to be "careful," since "here come
the men who change everything," and reconceives his longstanding
spiritual discipline so that now he "worship[s]" only
"through increasing distance." Even that faith is in
doubt. The Foreman who, in many previous productions, could be
counted on to make visible a god of one kind or another--a big,
unmysterious contraption of boards and paint, usually child-like
or grotesque, but nonetheless present--now warns that "those
who sink tried to walk on water." When disappointment in
the superhuman is this severe, vanity (Foreman's word) is merely
reassuring and pragmatic.
Despite this play's air of disillusionment,
Foreman still seems to fear a sudden eruption of passion--instinct
leading him back to discredited patterns of behavior--and so he
presses down on his onstage surrogates, as if disciplining animals
he doesn't trust to have been tamed. Foreman writes that "My
mouth is sealed with gold," and throughout the production
he works variations on such bondage. The main actors (Tea Alagic,
Robert Cucuzza, Elina Löwensohn, and D. J. Mendel) are dressed
in multiple layers of clothing, burying whatever natural selves
they have under disguises as heterogeneous as their character
names. Nikos wears a fur vest over a tee-shirt over yet another
shirt, as well as, later, a skirt on top of his pants. Umberto
struts and preens in courtier's feathers, doublet, brocade, and
buckles. Luminitza is herself a riot of textures and patterns--lace,
paisley, velvet, and silk. Svetlana wears a baby-doll dress over
long-johns, and a hat covered with Ping-Pong balls. Everyone in
fact wears some form of headdress, as if Foreman were clamping
down on thought itself. With the most menacing of the characters,
Nikos, Foreman takes extra precautions, binding his arms with
tape to keep his muscles in line.
It's no use. Desire's volcanic force begins
pushing against the play's inwardness early on, when Foreman says,
"Kiss me, kiss me, when I am most ruined, inside myself."
Soon, this need intensifies, spiking like a fever and then running
out of control, as orality in all its forms threatens to wreak
havoc. In the first scene, a woman licking a sword makes clear
the double-edged nature of all subsequent hunger. When two characters
kiss, they seem to bruise their lips and break their teeth. Others
lick ice-cream cones that immediately slip from their hands. A
man doubles over and retches after eating a pastry. Lust turns
ludicrous when the men bury their faces in huge prop vaginas,
half the size of the women holding them, only to be whipped and
rendered so weak they can't emerge from the objects of their desire.
(They stagger around the stage with the genitalia sitting on their
heads like vaguely Alpine hats.) The chorus of stagehands displays
the only uncomplicated penetration in the production: They are
multiply pierced with nose rings, lower-lip studs, and eyebrow
staples, and in their indifference recommend the proper response
to other kinds of violation.
Indeed, such affectlessness quickly drains
every action, however bold, of its power. The women protagonists
pick lint from their hair during the scenes of oral sex. They
humorlessly grind phallic objects into their partners. After thrusting
once against the men, they push them to the floor. Despite the
grimness of Foreman's vision of sexuality--his male surrogates
yearning for shame and submitting to humiliation--it remains without
consequence. There’s no nadir to the abjection, and certainly
no sense that the self-sacrifice will lead to absolution, purification,
much less the relief of oblivion. Far from it: the bodies are
still intact, unchanged despite the masochism, as if their greatest
torment is their own resilience. That sense of an all-enveloping,
smothering stasis, undisturbed even by repeated acts of aggression,
is more alarming than the aggression itself. Foreman is always
reminding himself that tranquillity won't be consoling ("This,
no end of trouble, is my safe harbor," says the Voice), and
that it can't protect him from the agony of uncertainty ("This
paradise is half and half objectionable"). Mere seeing--the
gentlest, most discreet mode of contact--is painful: When characters
look through a Plexiglas disc at the front of the stage, a flash
of light momentarily blinds them. Yet they keep coming back, only
to be shocked again, covering their eyes and stumbling in almost
the same pattern.
Is this what Foreman means when, in the
text and a program note, he speaks of being "here now, inside
the behavioral center?" There was a time in Foreman's career
when such a condition would be desirable--the individual so intimate
with his emotional and physical impulses that he doesn't second-guess
them, doesn't siphon off their vitality with either anticipation
or retrospective judgement. In The Cure (1986), Foreman
went even further, recommending that one stay so deep within this
"behavioral center" that one never actually follows
through on any desire for fear of diluting it. Actions only compromise
intentions, he argued in that play. Its characters struggled not
to betray the memory of their glittering, ideal wishes with the
banal reality of their fulfillment.
Of course Panic! also resists
development. Like all Foreman, it repeats itself, idles, leaps
forward only to leap backward--the verbal and gestural equivalents
of the loops of music wreathing the action. But now such circularity
seems less a choice than a stoic acquiescence to reality, a comment
perhaps on the fading of an ideal that once promised deliverance.
Foreman no longer seems to know what he would be delivered to.
The vision of utopia he has variously termed "Paradise Hotel,"
"Poetry City," and (in an uncut draft of Permanent
Brain Damage) "the room of radios" is here obscured
by "the paraphernalia of my youth," the "entire
world [of] memories," the "old patterns," and "redundant
behavior." Obsession with the past isn't the only habit blunting
perception. The future seems even less alive. Several times in
Panic, a board appears on which are pasted desiccated,
vaguely excremental shapes. "Here's tomorrow's baked goods,"
the voice announces, helpfully, "stale already."
This is the dark side of Gertrude Stein's
continuous present--more purgatory than paradise. Here, his characters
can't sustain contact with others, realize no goals, doubt spiritual
knowledge as soon as it comes within reach. They're not even reliably
narcissistic. Near the end, when a gingerbread house appears,
the characters reach for the lolly-pops and ice-cream cones covering
its roof, ignoring the little mirrors on sticks next to them.
Death itself, always a taunting presence in Foreman's theater,
can't touch them. Here, it hovers over--but never descends upon--the
room in the shape of a vulture, hanging so far upstage it's easy
to miss. Fear, despair, anxiety: the typical Foreman emotions
barely surface in Panic!, if at all. The most affecting
response comes from an inanimate figure--a massive head representing
the Old Man in the Mountain, whose sadness is marked by a single
large tear painted on his cheek. Ignoring such pathos, the living
actors take their cue from the many Victorian dolls with glazed
eyes hanging around the stage, impervious to all disturbances.
Death's inevitability doesn't affect them because they've never
These portraits attest to the severity
of Foreman's judgement on "unavoidably frustrated effort
and desire" (as he writes in the program): In other plays,
the "effort" wouldn't have seemed so routine and pessimistic,
and the reaction to its failure so weak and unsurprised. Foreman's
honesty has unexpected consequences. Panic!, in the end,
isn't as satisfying as other recent Ontological productions--a
result, I think, of dramatizing fatigue itself, Foreman staging
a battle for self-mastery while at the same time conceding that
it was lost long ago. Reviewers of Panic! have praised
the acting for, among other things, its "noncommittal quality"
and "impassivity" (as the Village Voice's Michael
Feingold calls it), so unlike the "masked emotional depth"
of previous performers. The change is indeed striking, but to
me it's regrettable. Seasoned as this cast is, it never projects
what one would call charm, if that word didn't sound inappropriate
to a theater that refuses to pander to its audience. The best
of earlier Foreman actors were opinionated and even querulous
presences, not diffident, nor merely droll. They seemed knowing
instead of jaded--a more active state. When they addressed us
in a confidential, even conspiratorial tone, they were genuinely
fascinated by their condition. They joined us in marveling at
their landscape, puzzling out their text, and occasionally even
looking dubiously upon their own behavior. Inside their seeming
numbness burned passionate thought, an unpredictable individuality
that added poignancy to the abstractions of their dialogue. That
tension was theatrically productive--there was always something
that Foreman, sitting in front of them in the audience at his
sound board, couldn't control.
Here, though, the actors seem to have
acquiesced to their characters' fates too easily and completely,
with the result that the theater itself, once a place for Foreman
to confront life's insults by constructing an exaggerated, compressed,
and sped-up simulation of them, now becomes another place where
he must suffer them.
(Marc Robinson teaches at the Yale
School of Drama and Yale College. He is the author of The
Other American Drama.)