It's strange to think of a Richard Foreman show as somehow dimmed, and while 'strange' is not an unlikely description of his work, it's not usually the first approach to its criticism. Foreman, like the best of the avant-gardistes (the avant-garde is dead/long live the avant-garde), utilizes the strange as affect, making the familiar un- and the unfamiliar so; and though attending his yearly performances has become something that is 'done' by the funky-glasses crowd, he still maintains the ability to shock and thrill. Which is what is so disappointing in his current music-theatre lovechild with John Zorn, Astronome: A Night at the Opera (A Disturbing Initiation)--disturbing only insofar as the strangest strange is just how unexpectedly colloquial it is.
The notion of a collaboration between Foreman and Zorn is decidedly un-strange, and one wonders to some extent what took them so long: both are supersized icons of the New York experimental scene; both play outside the boundaries of their respective media; and both force the listener/spectator into new (but ne'er unwelcome) modes of multifaceted perception. One enters into the worlds they create and somehow finds herself navigating what should be illogical connections via a sensual, visceral path. Yet Astronome becomes less a world of its own than a series of tableaux vivants, still featuring the usual totems of Foreman's weird (a much better word than strange to describe his oeuvre) mindspace but, here, rendered less spectacle, and less spectacular, than a sort of "Pictures at an Exhibition" for the just-slightly-post-MTV generation.
Foreman's usual alphanumeric mysticism is tweaked by what one might safely assume in part to be Zorn's influence: Hebrew letters and tarot-card stuffed dolls (an inverted hanged man with protruding tongue and Medusa-esque tresses aloft from the grid is the most visually arresting) share the littered stage with a massive, rubber-nosed face and plexiglass-cordoned quarter, and the costuming is, dare I reveal my goyish sensibility, rather Yiddish punk--an aesthetic that's played out through the many gestural references to a hardcore show, including a more than fair amount of crotch grabbing. In addition to the usual minions is a pillow-stuffed man, face painted a sort of okra (or, in less polite terms, vomitous) green, who spends most of his time behind the plexiglass and, when the music's just screamy enough, pantomimes a headbanging routine that's unfortunately as much Gene Simmons as Sid Vicious.
Zorn's score, performed (though, alas, prerecorded, not live) by Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and Joey Baron--any of whom are welcome to rock some hardcore on me at will--focuses the action onstage but remains unhappily disconnected. And the invitation to don distributed earplugs because, as the disclaimer in the program reads, "FIVE MINUTES AFTER THE PLAY STARTS VERY LOUD MUSIC BEGINS" doesn't help. Though there is still the occasional blinding lightplay, it was as unremarkable as if I were wearing sunglasses as well as earplugs. In this sense, Astronome is truly operatic: the staging feels subservient to the music; the libretto, if you will, is negligible (a most damning state for Foreman's usually wonderful and disconcerting profundities); and the acting, as much as one can ever talk about acting in a Foreman production, is painfully reminiscent of undergrad voice majors--and not in a playful oh-it's-ironic way.
Perhaps the most strange strange of Astronome is not that I didn't get it, but that I kind of did. And wasn't particularly satisfied with what I got.