Avant garde theater has, almost by definition, never been mainstream. The closest we’ve seen in New York commercial theater may have been the lively revival of Ionesco’s Exit the King last spring. But even that show had a clear and cogent narrative — the decline and death of Geoffrey Rush’s king — related in highly stylized form. Writer/director/designer Richard Foreman’s Idiot Savant, which just opened Off Broadway at the Public Theater, affords audiences no such advantages. It’s one strange, head-scratching evening. But if you want an introduction to truly plot-free experimental theater, it’s not a bad place to start.
For one thing, Idiot Savant clocks in at a relatively fleet 80 minutes. For another, Willem Dafoe fully commits to the show’s weirdness, even appearing on stage as the title character in black skirts, black lace-up boots, and a samurai-style hair-pull on top of his head. And third, an opening voiceover helpfully lists nearly all of the props that will appear on stage during the performance (an oversize golf ball and four clubs, two facsimile rowboats, a fruit basket, a duck in a cage) — which can be useful if you want to mark the time between strobe-light flashes and predict when all the nonsense might end. (Have we seen the golf clubs yet?)
That voiceover also instructs the performers: ”Do not try to carry this play forward.” In that, they succeed, devoting themselves to mock-philosophical banter (”To supersede something is always to destroy a first something else”) and non sequiturs (”duck + God = stupid”) in addition to a nonrealistic performing style that owes much to silent film — and not nearly enough to vaudeville. There’s also a performer dressed in a giant duck costume wearing a fez.
The performers are certainly game. Alenka Kraigher plays Marie, who alternately cringes from Dafoe and pines for him in gawky, loose-limbed way, like a blond Olive Oyl. And as a femme fatale in riding pants named Olga, Elina Löwensohn (Schindler’s List) looks and speaks like a seemingly disinterested Garbo. But the show itself never builds to real insights, or follows any of its musings to any meaningful conclusions. And even if the elusiveness of meaning is the play’s raison d’etre, I wish that the absurd high jinks were more diverting. If you’re going to bring out a giant duck wearing a fez, shouldn’t he at least juggle or something? C+
(Tickets: tickets.publictheater.org or 212-967-7555)