'Idiot Savant'

Since when has Richard Foreman been so grand -- and ever so elegantly French?

Since when has Richard Foreman been so grand — and ever so elegantly French? “Idiot Savant” continues the avant-garde director-playwright’s ongoing exploration of such existential brain-teasers as the power of language, the mystery of free will and the disturbing nature of stupid jokes. Although aired here in Foreman’s customarily cryptic style, the metaphysical ping-pong match is staged in the unusually splendid surroundings of a Louis XV castle, a big, brick pile that comes with highly polished surfaces, liveried servants and a not entirely unexpected giant duck.

To the strings, bells, buzzers and blinding lights that normally define the playing arena of a Foreman production, the mischievous master of the absurd has added several crystal chandeliers to light the intellectual dark. Or not.

Symbolically functional or not, the chandeliers look snazzy, as do Gabriel Berry’s svelte costumes for the two female characters — a richly detailed gown for Marie (the ethereally lovely Alenka Kraigher), who asks the most penetrating questions in this piece, and a jaunty riding outfit for Olga (the smart and snappish Elina Lowensohn), who goes around puncturing everyone’s well-reasoned assumptions. 

The only person who seems strangled by his costume is the Idiot Savant (a scowling Willem Dafoe), whose all-too-human role is to try to make sense of the conundrums flung at him like weapons by the unseen Voice of the godlike director. It’s a losing battle, made manifest by the absurdity of his costume — a warrior-knot and samurai-like robes over pigeon-toed shoes — and the frailty of his human nature.

Whether thought of as tricks or games, the mental skirmishes are par for the Foreman course. (And yes, the bizarre events include a game of golf.)

In the formal language of the piece, the Idiot Savant is charged with saving humanity from “magic words,” including the ones lurking behind numbered doors that deliver powerful shocks if mistakenly chosen. “I don’t know how to be on guard against a word!” the ever-rational Marie protests, proving herself to be a true child of the Age of Enlightenment — but no match for the Giant Duck that throws that game of interspecies golf into chaos.

Prettily as all the thesps speak their absurd lines and perform their absurd tasks, those “magic words” that reduce them to robots remain the exclusive property of Foreman, godlike director and big duck.

Idiot Savant

Public Theater/Martinson Hall; 199 seats; $70 top

Production

A Public Theater presentation, in association with Ontological-Hysteric Theater, of a play in one act written, directed and designed by Richard Foreman.

Creative

Associate set designer, Peter Ksander; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lighting, Heather Carson; sound, Travis Just; production stage manager, Elizabeth Moreau. Opened Nov. 4, 2009. Reviewed Oct. 30.  Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Idiot Savant - Willem Dafoe Marie - Alenka Kraigher Olga - Elina Lowensohn
With: Joel Israel, Eric Magnus, Daniel Allen Nelson.
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