Richard Foreman b. 1937
Lava (1989)
Duration: 67 minutes

Review/Theater; On a Feather-Strewn Stage, Multiple Flights of Fancy
New York Times
Published: December 13, 1989

In a program note to "Lava," Richard Foreman suggests that his new play "may at first seem even a bit more perplexing than the 'unbalancing acts' that are performed" in his other works. Theatergoers are forewarned and forearmed. For 20 years, this author and director has been offering ideographic emanations of his inner life. In a sense, he posts road maps without destinations. As with "Lava," the journey is intriguing, although the extent of the interest depends on one's willingness to indulge the playwright's fancifulness.

The plays are mysteries, and some are so elusive as to defeat even the most diligent of private investigators. All a theatergoer can hope to do is to collect clues and leap to conclusions, especially difficult in the case of "Lava."

For this co-production of Mr. Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater and the Wooster Group, the Performing Garage has been turned into a Foreman equivalent of a Joseph Cornell box. Strange objects (and bizarre-looking characters) are firmly fixed in place, but the connection among them is in the eye of the beholder.

Before "Lava" begins, there is ample time to contemplate the setting (designed by Mr. Foreman), crisscrossed with his customary string and so crammed with gewgaws as to look like a black magical museum installation. This could be a classroom except that the stage is strewn with feathers. Somewhere, something is molting. Could it be the playwright's imagination?

First clue: Things come in threes. There are three blackboards on which are transcribed versions of the author's sepulchral taped narration. There are three actors, all outfited with hunchbacks, a trio of mad doctors who introduce three categories of thought. Category 1 is reality (regained with our equilibrium when we leave the theater). Category 2 is "random nonsense" (well represented on stage). Category 3 calls for an act of faith as the author attempts to disorient the audience.

With humility, Mr. Foreman admits his inability to communicate, discrediting himself for offering a "mental massage." When the language becomes too self-indulgent, there is a cry for "verbal police," an army of censors who remain unseen.

What one misses in the show is not so much clarity (obfuscation comes with the territory) as humor, which is usually endemic to the author's work - in his recent "Film Is Evil, Radio Is Good" and "Symphony of Rats," as well in his early picaresque tales about his favorite heroine, Rhoda. "Lava" is marked by its sobriety, even as the three actors don long black beards and look like Tatar cousins of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

One of the play's lingering mysteries is the title, which may, of course, be a volcanic reference or perhaps a nostalgic salute to that soap that was popularized years ago with a commercial that spelled out the product's name with a drum-beating intensity. If one intruded an apostrophe into the title, making it "l'Ava," that might explain all those feathers on stage.

Even as his work becomes more internalized, Mr. Foreman has not lost his ability to awaken an audience's curiosity and to entreat strangers -and admirers - to join him in his own enigmatic quest for self-definition. UNBALANCING ACTS - LAVA, written, directed and designed by Richard Foreman; lighting design, Heather Carson; assistant director, David Herskovits. A co-production of Ontological-Hysteric Theater and the Wooster Group. At 33 Wooster Street. WITH: Neil Bradley, Matthew Courtney, Peter Davis, Kyle deCamp, Hiedi Tradewell and Richard Foreman.