Some nights, David Patrick Kelly saves audience members from the dreaded "Mind Attack" in Richard Foreman's latest Off-Broadway piece, Pearls for Pigs. But there is a price: To do it, he must endure the soul-bearing ordeal himself.
Kelly plays The Maestro, a man continually faced with contradictions, paradoxes and many questions about the life he's chosen to live -- namely as a practitioner of theatre. One of the many obstacles The Maestro must endure is a "Mind Attack," which, audience members are told, encompasses having our mistakes, errors and humiliations put on stage for all the rest of the audience to be amused by. At two recent performances, Kelly thankfully decided that he would endure the Mind Attack for us.
Kelly has been working with Foreman, the avant-garde legend, on and off for the past 14 years, beginning with Dr. Selavy's Magic Theater, one of Foreman's ventures into musical theatre with composer Stanley Silverman. But, it wasn't until 1986 that Kelly started working on Foreman's "Ontological-Hysteric" plays, with The Cure and Film is Evil, Radio is Good, which both received Obie Awards that year.
How does Kelly classify Foreman's plays? "I often say that his work is like Samuel Beckett writing radio plays for the Marx Brothers and then staging them. Because in the midst of all these deep philosophical and metaphysical concerns there's all this great humor and that's what leavens the idea and makes it pick up a little bit because the humor comes in the world as he sees it."
For 29 years, Foreman has been writing, directing, and designing plays for his own Ontological-Hysteric Theater. So far he's done more than 50, including Rhoda in Potatoland, My Head Was a Sledgehammer, Eddie Goes to Poetry City and Samuel's Major Problems. Foreman has received numerous awards and grants, including the coveted, MacArthur "Genius" Grant. His next play, Benita Canova, opens in January 1998. Kelly's introduction to Foreman's theatre occurred while attending the University of Detroit, in 1969. He recalls reading Foreman's essays and manifestos about theatre. When he moved to New York in the early 70's he was able to experience Foreman's theatre firsthand for the first time. Kate Manheim (now Foreman's wife) starred in all of the shows. Kelly said of her, "She was always the central focus - this kind of innocent adventurer in Sophia=Wisdom and Rhoda in Potatoland and all those early plays. She was this innocent, erotic, adventurer and [Foreman's] character was always. . . around the outside, in a kind of omniscient fashion. You would hear his mental processes working on her as the central character. As time went by, it became more balanced. You'd see him as more of a full interactive figure on the stage rather than this omniscient peripheral character and so it's come full circle to this Pearls for Pigs where he is the central character."
Kelly said, "These characters [from Pearls] like The Maestro, and Columbine and The Doctor and Pierrot are aspects of the world in which he [Foreman] lives. And so it's not just some kind of removed difficult philosophical discussion that he's doing. He has these philosophical concerns and he filters them through the poetry of his own light and the difficulty to continue creating in a poisonous environment -- where people may not be interested in your ideas. So, The Maestro embodies those concerns and represents this creative paradox, 'How do you create in the midst of all this poison around you?'."
Unlike most Foreman shows, Pearls was seen not only by New York's "Downtown" crowd, but by international audiences. In a tour organized by producer Jedediah Wheeler, Pearls played to crowds in Paris, Rome, Montreal, Los Angeles, and Hartford, CT.
For Kelly the most exciting part of the tour was, "The faces of the people and the fires that we lit. Some old man in Hartford coming up and saying 'I had a spaghetti dinner when I was 18 years old with Salvador Dali and Gertrude Stein came to Hartford. You enrich our lives'. This guy's eighty years old and these little fires throughout his life that had this meaning for him show us the importance of creative effort and the importance of this transcendence we're all searching for. This old man who had seen these different avant garde art events in his life, who's now eighty years old and the light was still burning in his eyes, hoping for this meaning. In France talking to Bernard Sobel, a holocaust survivor who had produced Richard for 30 years, and him saying "I died at Auschwitz, and I only live through producing Richard and Robert Wilson." In Rome, two young literary students came backstage afterwards -- very shy, hardly spoke any English -- but just the light in their eyes saying, 'We study letters, we study literature and thank you'. Wherever we went there was something like that.
But, Kelly's career is not limited to just one director. He's been on Broadway several times, including originating lead roles in the musicals: Working and Is There Life After High School?; parts in the Broadway plays : The Suicide, starring Derek Jacobi and Knockout starring Danny Aiello and The Government Inspector by Tony Randall's National Theatre Company. He has also worked extensively with film industry favorites like Spike Lee (Crooklyn, Girl 6 and Malcolm X), David Lynch (Wild at Heart and TV's Twin Peaks) and Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hours and Last Man Standing.
Kelly lamented, "There's no place like Broadway, it's a wonderful place. That role in Working was an intense and wonderful thing, where I made a kind of Stanislavskian breakthrough. I realized the magical 'if' in this little speech that I did, with a character called Charlie Blossom. Stephen Schwartz and Graciela Daniele were working on that with me and really coached through and helped me break through with that material. So, [film director] Walter Hill saw that on Broadway and that's where I got that first film, The Warriors. Working with James Taylor on that music, it was like a dream, it was really fantastic times. Strasberg said that theatre and film are both theatrical mediums, they work in the same way. Theatre is always the true foundation."
After spending more than a year with Pearls, what does the future hold for Kelly? "I started doing my own plays about three years ago at HERE . . . I call it the CBGB's of theatre, I think it has a great spirit. They asked me to come back there, so I may be able to do that in the spring."
Pearls for Pigs runs through Jan. 4 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, for more information call (212) 279-4200.
-- By Sean McGrath