The Gods Are Pounding My Head!
nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
January 11, 2005
Richard Foreman’s tenure as East Village mainstay is coming to a close with The Gods Are Pounding My Head! (AKA Lumberjack Messiah). His Ontological Hysteric Theater, at St. Marks Church, has produced 50 of his pieces, a metaphysical, theatrical hodgepodge of symbols, metaphor, and academia. This show, billed as his final one (at least for now), is said to be the culmination of his unique ruminations. The experience of watching The Gods Are Pounding My Head! is one of watching a man wrestle with heady concepts, very much on his own, for an audience of faithful cult-followers. All others need not apply, I fear.
There is a lot that happens in The Gods Are Pounding My Head!, but I’m not sure if they’d qualify as dramatic incidents in any conventional sense. Two lumberjacks named Dutch and Frenchie come across a young blonde nymph named Maude and wander in a dream of technology and biology, or so it seems. The chorus wear black hats with crucifixes on them, bearing everything from black buckets to papier mache heads to large black charts bearing magic square numbers. What is happening? Foreman tells us he’s wrestling with the Western mind, the mind of those who cut down, like lumberjacks, old things to make way for new ones. He fears that this society, as it acquires more and more speed and immediacy, will become more "thin," that a deeper, more meditative psychology is being supplanted by a wider “super-consciousness” that may or may not be an improvement. To be honest, though, that explanation comes from the program notes. It was not explicitly on the stage.
It’s an argument in modern art: should the art speak for itself without the artist providing his own context (in the form of a statement, for example) or is providing a context part of the art? Why should an artist accept the pre-determined context of what we bring with us when we walk in the door…can’t he put us in another mindset? Or does the theatrical piece that fails to engage without prior explanation lack integrity?
Of course, there’s no solid answer to this question. It’s entirely up to taste, to the audience, and to theoreticians. In Foreman’s defense, he certainly will bring to the surface a person’s inherent prejudices or lack thereof when it comes to art. The casual observer or uninitiated into this sort of active participation, someone who isn’t a big reader of Foucault perhaps, might just find themselves rightly sitting there thinking: “What the heck am I doing here?”
So in reviewing Foreman the question becomes how is this valuable? It is because of the debate it may spark, it isn’t because of the ideas. When the giant paisley bird is rolled onto the stage late in the play, anyone who doesn’t roll their eyes is more than likely so indoctrinated that Foreman would have to literally stand up and say “This random bird means nothing to anyone but me!” And even then, they’d likely applaud him as a genius. But there are charms in the performances, humorous juxtapositions of language and image, that are intentional and very under control. He’s an artist, above all things, being allowed to work purely in his medium, and for that reason alone, he’s an increasingly rare bird.
There were moments of stagecraft here that I was simply floored by, and others that left me utterly cold. Besides a dedicated and specific chorus, there are three actors on the stage to try to decipher: Jay Smith’s odd deadpan as Dutch; T. Ryder Smith’s laconic Frenchie, and Charlotta Mohlin’s pixie Maude. As performers, they are all about as different in style and appearance as possible, absolutely unsettling as a trio. The language of play did more for me than the images, which often seemed to be coming from a Jungian mish-mash, but the mix of the visceral (a giant encased heart) and the technological (an engine that rides back on forth on a track) creates a gut-reaction that rises above simple understanding.
The final result was a resounding shrug of my shoulders, at first. But as I’ve taken time away from the actual performance, I've realized that it certainly challenged my sensibilities. And really, when so much of theatre is either preaching to the converted or grappling with such immense questions as “Can I be happy?” or “How do single moms do it?” the questions of modern art, consciousness, and the Western mind are worth at least trying to tap into. And few, I’d say try with as much audacity and bravery as Foreman.