Audience, Please Exit Now
Not even a half hour into the 80-minute performance, much of the row behind us gave up and left, clumping and clattering out of the theater. A short while after that, more of the crowd fled, the wood of the risers amplifying their every footfall. Those of us who remained were quiet, whether out of absorption, puzzlement or indifference. I couldn't detect the tenor of the audience, or even the reaction of the good friend beside me. Occasional sparse laughter aside, the spectators at yesterday's matinee of Richard Foreman's "Idiot Savant," at the Public Theater, were so subdued as to seem unresponsive.
But would we have been so at the curtain call? It's impossible to know, because there wasn't one. Instead, the disembodied voice that had spoken to us and to the actors at the beginning of the play ("Message to the performers: Do not try to carry this play forward") spoke again at the end to tell the audience that the performance was over and we were to exit now. The applause that came anyway from those who were not immediately out the door was befuddled, and consequently muted: Are we really supposed to leave without saying thank you?
It's the actors who bow at a curtain call, but it's not only their performance that we're applauding. It's also the writing, the direction, the design -- or, in the case of Foreman, more likely those same three things in reverse order, language being the least of it with him. Nearly everything psychological about his voyages into the imagination is perceptible in his weird, sometimes hallucinatory stage pictures, so vivid that knowledge of English is probably not a prerequisite for viewing. The delicious set of "Idiot Savant" is like a shoebox diorama made human-scale (and, for what it's worth, the best spatial use of the Public's difficult Martinson stage I've ever seen); the actors, the costumes, the scores of props are objects Foreman moves around his diorama. What he's creating is spectacle, and we are spectators. Which is a step removed from being a true theater audience: We're observers, not crucial participants.
And yet when my friend and I walked out onto Lafayette Street (he said he loved it, by the way; so did I), I couldn't help feeling a little bit bad for the actors. If I hadn't been able to gauge the audience's response, had they? Some of the best curtain calls come after performances like that, when a seemingly tepid crowd turns out to have been with the actors all along. If our audience was -- and maybe they weren't; maybe it was mostly a crowd of "Spider-Man" fans who'd come to see Willem Dafoe, mixed with white-haired matinee-goers who are Foreman's contemporaries but not his peers -- the cast will never know it.
Americans are notoriously stingy with their applause, so it may be a little weird that I'm bothered, as an audience member, by the lack of a curtain call. Nonetheless, I am. The absence of it fits the form of the piece, but it doesn't quite fit its spirit, which is nothing if not generous. There's no quibbling with the rest of "Idiot Savant": From Foreman's overflowing imagination come a giant papal stigmata duck and a spotted spider, too; it's simply ungrateful to complain. But amid all that bounty, he leaves us hungry for the chance to give thanks.