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Idiot Savant

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Idiot Savant
Willem Dafoe
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The relationship between the power of images and the power of words is at the center of Idiot Savant - and it’s not merely a question of exploring the intricacies of a 1-to-1,000 ratio. Richard Foreman’s play at The Public Theater’s Martinson Hall, produced in association with Foreman’s own Ontological-Hysteric Theater, is an all-out assault on the idea that either language or life can ever be precisely quantified, so you may as well just contribute when you can, shut up when you can’t, and enjoy the ride the rest of the way.

That battle plan is also the most effective method of dealing with the production itself, which is fulfilling and entertaining but, like much of Foreman’s work, makes more sense in the broader view than it does in any up-close inspection. Why worry too much, for example, about the recurring metaphor of ducks - in cages, as masks, at several points seven feet tall and apparently blinded - seeking to sap away the human experience when we’re all perfectly capable of doing that ourselves? Forsaking what appears right in front of us in favor of a description of that same thing may, in fact, be the thing we’re most demonstrably good at.

It certainly is the chief, if not the only, talent of the title character (Willem Dafoe), who at his first appearance has a “provocative dental instrument” jammed so far down his throat that getting out even a single syllable is impossible. Even if he could formulate sentences, what would he say? Costumed (by Gabriel Berry) as a commedia dell’arte samurai, he’s the very vision of well-aligned chaos. And when he removes his vocal obstruction, he begins making a bit more sense in speaking to Marie (Alenka Kraigher): “As a result, dear lady - am I no longer capable of saving us from magic words?”

“What makes chosen words - magic?”, she wonders in return.

Idiot Savant
Alenka Kraigher and Elina Löwensohn.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

What indeed. Foreman, Dafoe, Kraigher, and Elina Löwensohn (as Olga, who wears the top of an elaborate gown and riding pants, and thus looks like the woman who rides the gift horse people aren’t supposed to look in the mouth) spend the next 80 minutes or so pondering exactly that question. They come to the conclusion, more or less anyway, that the answer is the same as what makes them destructive: agreement or disagreement between both the utterer and the listener. And before long, Idiot Savant has itself become yet another weapon passed between parties in that ongoing struggle.

“Speaking now,” Idiot Savant says at one point, “with REAL WORDS to drive REAL PEOPLE to REAL PREDICTABLE DISTRACTION!?” Do they ever have any other point? Arguments erupt over which word in Idiot Savant’s name is more powerful, whether “right” is an acceptable substitute for “yes,” and whether even the image of his existence can be trusted to say what he wants it to. “But this face of mine, in fact - REAL? Or simply a “THING” that whispers to myself at CRUCIAL moments,” Idiot Savant reflects at one point.

He’s right to wonder whether even his eyes can be trusted. His world, after all, is one of a celestial castle’s squash court doubling as a junkyard, where that enormous duck plays golf using a human head-sized ball, spiders who terrorized Miss Muffet play a crucial role, and Kraigher’s character is referred to in the Playbill as “Marie, in the black dress,” even though the actress is actually clad in dark green. The performances are all emphatic, precisely focused and yet restless in the best possible way, with Dafoe a dreamlike avatar of sensibility stumbling amid Kraigher’s stately acceptable weirdness and Löwensohn’s too-earthy order.

The confusion in which they’re trudging is palpable, yes - but how often are concepts and words completely compatible, anyway? Idiot Savant contends that “All things are yet thinkable inside a powerful mind, which does express itself eventually in apparent babble, non translatable into known languages,” and if that describes Foreman’s art, both here and in general, you never have to worry about being lost altogether. Foreman is a master of ruling over his worlds with an authoritative hand, so there’s no shortage of cohesion even if you may not always be sure what specific brand of adhesive is holding everything together.

Unity, after all, can transcend language. Or, as Dafoe himself intones: “Before being this character inside this play IDIOT SAVANT - I was once this same character - trapped inside an even more disturbing play entitled - ARROGANT FOOL.” Even when words change, their meaning is constant - and Foreman ensures that that’s also true of his production as a whole. You need to be kept linguistically grounded even as you’re embarking on extravagant flights of fancy. You may have heard that a rose by any other name... Eh, you know the rest. And you’ll understand it even better once Idiot Savant is over.


Idiot Savant
Through December 13
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater