As the years go by, a playwright-director with as personal a vision as Richard Foreman is in ever graver danger of cannibalizing or parodying himself. He skirted that trap at New Haven’s Yale Rep last year by directing someone else’s play, Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus.” But with “Pearls for Pigs” he serves as director, writer and designer of sets, costumes and sound, and the result is an earthbound, unmagical example of Foreman’s phantasmagoria.
Theatergoers meeting Forman for the first time (he’s been a force in the avant-garde since the 1970s) may be surprised at how “Pearls for Pigs” frantically evokes German expressionism, absurdism, dadaism, surrealism, farce, vaudeville, burlesque, the circus and the Marx Brothers. Its long 75 minutes are quite the reverse of the avant-garde label still applied to Foreman in some quarters. But how, after so many years doing much the same thing, can Foreman still be deemed innovative?
As he often does, he plays with theatrical reality and illusion in “Pearls for Pigs.” Presumably a pearl he’s casting before the swinish audience (skewered by Heather Carson’s blinding white lighting that spills way beyond the stage), it takes place in a deliberately tacky theater, a mostly black-and-white collage that includes Foreman’s trademark dissecting strings plus poles topped with white feathers and skulls. A small proscenium stage opens its curtains at one point to reveal a blackboard on which is chalked run-on sentences referring to the theater of disorder, of sleep, of fragments, of false confidence, of lost hope, of catastrophe and so on. Among the props is a magician’s coffin.
At the play’s core is the fictional theater’s Maestro, played with energetic skill by experienced Foreman actor David Patrick Kelly. Looking like a runty, bespectacled Al Pacino, the Maestro seems to be investigating who or what he is or isn’t with the help of a monocled Germanic doctor (sveltely caricatured by Tom Nelis) who first appears in a frogman suit and later plays golf with a severed head. Also along for the bumpy ride are a sad, classical Pierrot (Peter Jacobs), a spaced-out modern-dress Colombine (Jan Leslie Harding) and four “large male dwarves” kinkily dressed in fishnet stockings and work boots, their buttocks padded, their heads deformed by black beehive helmets, who serve as chorus and stagehands. At times the Maestro dresses in a sort of chicken-ballerina costume. None of this is anywhere near as much fun as it might sound.
Everyone works with enormous physicality, bounding around the stage, doing pratfalls and bumps and grinds, jumping in and out of the coffin, and engaging in fully clothed simulated copulation and masturbation. Yet the hard work, interrupted by deafening blasts of repetitive music, doesn’t pay off. Or take off. It remains stolidly unbuoyant, fatally laced with deja vu. “Mind attack,” the Maestro shouts repeatedly as the play winds down far too slowly. But our minds are never attacked because they’re never engaged.
“Pearls for Pigs” isn’t so much intentionally incoherent as unintentionally dull. The “Oh No” emblazoned atop the set’s proscenium is an all too apt reaction to the production, which must be even duller to theatergoers sitting on either side rather than in front of the Hartford Stage’s thrust stage; Foreman has staged it with only the central section of the audience in mind. “Pearls for Pigs” is scheduled to play “a number of American and foreign cities” after its Hartford run. Foreman’s reputation won’t be enhanced by it.