Review: Willem Dafoe stars in an absurdist comedy

November 4, 2009 12:52:42 PM PST
The Idiot Savant asks Marie, "Am I no longer capable of saving us from magic words?" In turn, she asks him, "What makes chosen words - magic?"

And they're off and running, in the surreal immersion that is Richard Foreman's "Idiot Savant," an absurdist comedy premiering at the Public Theater.

Foreman wrote, directed and designed this play, which, like most of his work, has no conventional narrative. Events unfold in a dreamlike, disjointed fashion, taking any number of departures from reality.

Willem Dafoe is fascinating as the Idiot Savant. Dressed in Samurai-inspired skirts, paired with gartered white hose, his hair pulled into a defiant topknot, Dafoe alternately glides, charges and tumbles about the stage.

As he verbally spars with two women, who repeatedly challenge him - and each other - with wordplay and nonsensical apparitions such as fruit-laden boats, his face alternately stretches into a manic grin or contorts in exaggerated confusion.

The ladies are well-played by Alenka Kraigher as the ethereal, taunting Marie, and Elina Lowensohn as the cynical, snappish Olga.

As the trio tries to fathom unanswerable philosophical questions, the mental and physical acrobatics become more intense. Olga and the Idiot Savant remind one another several times that "Experts are confused."

Three servants, dressed in vaguely Ottoman Turkish skirted outfits, dash about wielding bows and red rubber ball-tipped arrows (Joel Israel, Eric Magnus and Daniel Allen Nelson.) The attractive costumes are designed by Gabriel Berry.

A deep, omniscient voice provides unhelpful comments, such as, "Message to the performers: You've been fooled - again." A warning cry of "Watch out!" is repeated, along with the sound of breaking glass, adding to the pervasive air of unease.

The claustrophobic black set, co-designed by Peter Ksander, is strung with Foreman's customary perspective lines. Numbers and letters are neatly placed about the vaguely 18th-century, European-style room.

Production elements that enhance the disquiet include blasts of light by Heather Carson, and jolting bursts of music designed by Travis Just.

Yet the anxiety is lightened by humorous dialogue and a visual sense of fun, including ducks and spiders. At one point, Olga exclaims, "I hope this is all nonsense."

She also accurately describes the audience condition when, speaking sarcastically about the Idiot Savant, she says, "Inevitable confusion, inside the mental elevator of an Idiot Savant going back and forth apparently sideways."

Images from the play may recur afterward in flashbacks, reinforcing themes while raising more questions. What can we learn from the Idiot Savant - or Little Miss Muffet - about danger and desire? Maybe nothing, but you can always ask the giant duck.

"Idiot Savant" is in a limited run through Dec. 13.

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