Richard Foreman Returns to Theatre with Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)

By Jerry Tallmer
30 Apr 2013

Richard Foreman
Richard Foreman

Rumpelstiltskin was an imp who, according to the Brothers Grimm, could spin straw into gold, thus saving the life of a beautiful but thankless maiden. And now a short, rumpled spinner of straw into gold, not unlike Rumpelstiltskin, can be found at the Public Theater, where he has returned to the stage after a long absence by way of Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance), opening May 7.

His name is Richard Foreman, and he has been pushing the boundaries and challenging the psyche of theatre for 45 years now. In that span he has received seven Obie Awards, a MacArthur "Genius" Award and various other honors. But despite his experience and acclaim, Foreman is almost boyish in expressing "delight and surprise" that his complex, tricky film "Once Every Day" was chosen for screening at the most recent film festivals in both New York and Berlin.

Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance) is Foreman's 11th production at the Public Theater. The creator and founder of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in 1968, he first began working with the Public in 1977 and has emerged from retirement to write, direct and design this show, which is described as an "expressionistic chamber-play" and "snapshots from an enigmatic fairy tale."

Prior to Foreman's founding of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater and collaboration with the Public, he attended Yale Drama School and then came to New York to work for Jonas Mekas at the Anthology Film Archives. It was there where he received a burst of inspiration that shaped his upcoming career.



"There was a fellow there, Hermann Nitsch, an artist from Vienna, who had a big poster [that read] 'Orgies... Mysteries... Theatre,'" he said. "I thought I needed a name for my kind of theatre, and that's where the Ontological-Hysterical Theater came from. Boulevard comedies, essentially. I think the audiences were hysterical in the sense of repression."

Repressed people have been a common theme in Foreman's work, and Old-Fashioned Prostitutes - (A True Romance), which principally involves a beautiful Parisian courtesan named Suzie and an inhibited Proustian admirer named Samuel, is not true at all. Or perhaps not altogether true, Foreman slyly suggests, but true enough, and in one startling flash is absolutely true.

This flash takes place in a scene where an old man tells Samuel, "Go to Berkely, make film." This is, in fact, true, according to Foreman, who says the "the exact thing happened to me when I was doing Woyzeck up at Hartford around 15 years ago. This old guy, carrying a big, dirty cardboard box, came along, talking to himself. He was saying, 'Go to Berkeley, make film.' Then he disappeared."

Foreman never saw the man again, but the advice resonated with him, despite his misgivings about the man's age. "He was an old guy," said Foreman, who will celebrate his 76th birthday June 10. "He couldn't have known anything about making film. Unless he was God in disguise, maybe."

God or not, the advice stuck with Foreman, who, in 2008, announced he was giving up theatre to concentrate on film. He found the work isolating, describing it as "...sitting there, all alone, ten hours a day, you realize it's not too healthy a process." He also credits his return to theatre to the use of language, saying, " I need to use rhetoric, language. You can't do that in film – at least not with my language."

But Foreman has not completely abandoned film. After he finishes work on Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance), he plans to begin editing his next film, which is based on "Empty Moments," a film by Leo Charney, which he describes as being about "the drift in modern art and how life, as we live it, eludes us."

Life, and its elusion of humans, has been and continues to be the focus of Foreman's work. In earlier days, at the St. Mark's Playhouse, in the church at Second Avenue and 10th Street, Foreman's sets were like old curiosity shops screened off from the audience by incredible proscenium-width crisscross spider-webs of ordinary string. There is lesser spider webbing at Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance), but in its place a veritable cascade of overstuffed pillows to suggest a Paris brasserie.

The story of Rumpelstiltskin concludes with him stamping his foot through the floor, never to be seen again. But it looks like we can expect Foreman to stick around for much longer.