It seems only fitting that Los Angeles — the city of dreams, the glamour factory — should have been chosen for the world premiere of “What to Wear,” the latest of Richard Foreman’s diversity generators, as he calls them. A visionary musing on beauty, vanity and the nature of admiration, piece is blessed with a high-octane cast game for enacting Foreman’s typically hallucinatory images. Tours to fashion centers like Miami, Milan and Paris ought to follow the brief run at downtown’s Redcat.
Aud is greeted by signature Foreman elements: hanging Plexiglas panels acting as a fourth wall; a series of strings precisely tied across the black box; hints of exotica and erotica planted here and there.
Piece proceeds in time-tested fashion with snatches of voiceover text (e.g., “In her mind is a second mind”) picked up by cast, repeated, sung, repeated some more.
Manner is familiar but never stale and always purposeful. There is nothing careless in Foreman’s conception, however closed off to strict interpretation it may be.
Central figure Madeline X is played by two sopranos, an alto and a tenor (the amusing Mark Lowenstein), all clad in WAC-like beige dresses with the accoutrements of lovelies — bracelets, corsages, white half-gloves — plus bobby sox.
The Madelines pose and vogue while bespectacled courtiers all in black, with high-waisted kilts and black caps with colored balls on top, create intricate movement patterns while bringing on outlandish props and set pieces. Oh, and there are giant duck puppets.
Imagine the cast of “Alice in Wonderland” given unlimited access to styrofoam, kids’ activity paint and hashish, and you have a pretty good sense of “What to Wear.”
Insofar as synopsis is possible — since a Foreman play always eschews narrative — movement and design appear to chart the passage of beauty along the life cycle. It’s a matter of the aud observing the beautiful, and the beautiful observing itself.
The Madelines challenge (“You people do not shine”), importune (“I need you looking at me”) and mock (“So sad but I reject you/You are not beautiful”), but after a barrage of death’s heads, strangling boas (both the fashion and snake varieties) and swinging scythes, the diva wonders, “Am I still beautiful?” Music ends abruptly, with no reply proffered.
Entire show is unquestionably Foreman’s vision, but he is no autocratic puppeteer. For all the abstraction, each performer is endowed with a specific interior life, so that when a thesp splays herself against a door or dons a pile of spare tires it seems done out of volition, not something she was told to do. Entire company appears to be having a much better time than mere puppets possibly could, fun that translates to the aud.
Nonstop new-music score by Michael Gordon (of the Bang on a Can collective) is varied and hard-driving, as if influenced by L.A. movie music. Ominous themes might suit a Freddy Krueger entrance; when Gordon whips up the tireless violins and percussion, the excitement could accompany the big chase in “Planet of the Apes.” “What to Wear” never feels like a static pageant, for which Gordon deserves much credit.
Almost as interesting as the show itself is eyeing spectators unfamiliar with an avant-garde experience. One of piece’s droller incantations is “Experts are confused/Confused by Madeline X”; well, experts are not alone. Furrowed brows and strained efforts to make out scrawled text indicate a need for coherence. Anxious after-chat has a consistent theme: What does it all mean?
But that’s not how the game is played. Better to let the sights and sounds wash down, sleep on them; then, next morning, see what your dreams were like. There’s the proof of this pudding.