Richard Foreman: Old-Fashioned Prostitutes

Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (a true romance)
written, directed and designed by Richard Foreman
produced by the Public Theater in association with the Ontological-Hysteric Theater
Richard Foreman, perennial the emperor of the off-off-Broadway OOB-downtown avant-garde, has been producing his Ontological-Hysteric Theater for 45 years – over 50 productions. Kooky and cryptic, they’re no more to be rationally interpreted than that weirdo company name. They leave the audience with a remarkably refreshed feeling, like a meditation.

His latest work, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes makes it clear that he’s as idiosyncratic, as brilliant as ever. Non-narrative, with singular, stylized acting, it’s a perplexing dream. In its way it’s as far from verisimilitude as Everyman.

The immensely cluttered set has papers on the back wall, the designer's signature strings over the audience, pillows, a chandelier… There are lights on the audience, bright flashes, loud crashes… a phone ringing, jazz… The central character wears a book around his neck like a scapula medal. It’s an obscure mirage and a festival of design.

The situation, such as it is, concerns an artist, hence the papers and the book. Samuel is on a boulevard in a “familiar city”. He comes across a prostitute named Suzie. They both have friends – well, other actors really – and there’s a strange character in a bloated white costume named, according to the program, Bibendum (aka Michelin). They’re strongly miked. That’s about it. The actors speak in a slow, dreamy monotone, immediate, without the flow of time. They’re usually talking to themselves.

The script suggests the philosophical musings of Sartre's Nausea. There are phrases like “I require meaning” and “this self-evident world”. There are just enough lines to keep the play referent to a dramatic situation. In reference to Suzie, our man says “I suddenly do exist” and “This is the one who’ll certify my actual existence.” Merci, monsieur.

An example of the surreal “events”: Suzie is provocative, Samuels’s buddy grabs his crotch (an alter-ego?), then Samuel’s foot goes numb so he puts it in a bag… who knows why…

Chaotic, enigmatic as Foreman’s work is, we have a subconscious recognition of all this. Otherwise how could it be so engrossing, fascinating, irresistible?

There’s a certain frenzy I missed in this production that his earlier work had. There’d be a carnival music riff, and sort-of-gremlins would do a sort-of line dance.

Foreman once said to me “People are so afraid of being in a situation where they don’t know exactly what’s black, what’s white. How interesting it is, when you’re on a trip, to sometimes get lost and discover all kinds of fantastic things. Someone who is open to these possibilities could have a wonderful time.

We hope that Foreman’s parade of hallucinations never ends.

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