Since last year, when King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe was announced as the title for Richard Foreman’s 2004 production, rumors flew that he was going to— at long last— give us a "political" play.
Given the Bush administration’s utter disregard for truth and justice, there should be no shortage of artists raising their voices in opposition to the plethora of abuses at home and abroad. But from the celebrated godfather of the American theatrical avant-garde, a shift towards the political suggests a new direction.
Foreman’s work first appeared amidst the turbulence of 1968; however, unlike other artists active at the time, he never engaged in agitprop, his work presenting an alternative to the hippie ideals of environmental or communal theatre. His plays have never been tied down to messages or concerns that become irrelevant. Indeed, the idea of a unified point-of-view simply doesn’t gel with Foreman’s unique theatrical vision. While sustaining and furthering a distinctive style, his plays remain fresh, never an exercise in topical repetition or nostalgia.
For those who make the pilgrimage to St. Mark’s Church for their annual dose of Ontological-Hysteric Theater, such rumors were unnerving: would this mean there would suddenly be some lesson we should learn?
Any concerns that Rufus marks a departure of style or approach prove unfounded. While those looking for laughs at G.W.B.’s expense might well be satisfied, the closest reference to the production of W.M.D.’s is a tobacco factory, which the titular protagonist buys from his friend The Baron Herman De Voto.
Foreman has always been blessed with bold and brilliant actors to wrestle with his words and images, and this cast is stellar. Jay Smith is larger-than-life as Rufus, played as an English "fop," more Scarlet Pimpernel than Buffalo Bill; through an overly refined Oxbridge accent he shares his fantasies of being a "real American hero," with a ten-gallon hat and a six-shooter for fetish objects. Rufus buys the tobacco factory to exploit the vulnerability of Susie Sitwell, the "beautiful coquette" with a similar English accent, played by Juliana Francis.
Both performers are welcome returns to the Ontological, while T. Ryder Smith (terrific as Warhol to Francis’s Valerie Solanas in last summer’s overlooked Tragedy in 9 Lives at P.S. 122) rounds off the speaking cast (supplemented by Foreman’s standard silent chorus of stagehands), playing the Baron as a world-weary tough-guy, his accent reminiscent of a film noir gangster, a private eye or some Bogart blend of the two.
The Baron would be the sole "real" American of the three, were it not for his claim to be from Cyprus. He says that Rufus is just an "imitation" cowboy, but goes on to proclaim him "President of the United States." Images of former Presidents and their names incorporated into the set design reinforce the connection between the ambitions of the imitation cowboy and the presidency. Having imagined himself the cowboy hero, Rufus uses the idea of being President to allow himself dreams of universal domination, though what he’d do with such power we can only fear. With demands like, "rhyme things that do not rhyme," we are much more likely to laugh.
Other stage business (e.g. the appearance of a giant crow pie and ithyphallic bears wielding swords) reminds us that, after all, it is only theatre, and Foreman would never encourage any suspension of our disbelief.
Still, the timeliness of this work should not be underestimated, as we know full well how the real imitation cowboy threatens our place in the universe. Behind its hilarity, Rufus is the most political statement Foreman has ever made, and perhaps his most American work, powerfully exploring the mythology of our imaginary community. It takes a figure such as Rufus to make Bush II believable.
To be sure, Foreman’s program note makes clear his "anguished point of view concerning the direction in which current American policy is leading us." It was obvious that the vast majority of the audience shared in this anguish, for the collective disgust at cowboys that would rule promoted a sense of camaraderie among the audience that was rather atypical at the Ontological.
I can’t imagine many compassionate conservatives will attend, but if they do, it is difficult to determine what they would make of such a work. As obvious as the connection between Rufus and Bush is, Foreman’s avoidance of blatant ideology makes the play a hard target for those on the right who fight the culture wars, and one wonders if they know or care about this particular battlefield.
It is doubtful that Rufus will provoke them, just as it is far fetched to think it will change anyone’s political sensibilities. It is more likely that others will criticize Foreman for not being more overt, more direct in condemning the decidedly unfunny antics of King Cowboy Bush.
But Foreman’s artistry has never been about placing theatre in service of some didactic mission. And as loud as we laugh (more often individually than collectively), Foreman’s plays have never really been about entertainment. Instead, they are platforms for the exploration of consciousness, and as timely as Rufus is, that remains the primary concern of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. So while King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe does not mark any stylistic departure, it does afford a glimpse of how our current political crisis affects the mind.
King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe, written and directed by Richard Foreman, runs through April 18th, Ontological at St. Mark’s Church, Second Avenue and 10th Street, Tuesdays-Sundays, all performances 8pm, tickets $20 (students $15), except Saturdays, $25. For reservations:
(212) 533-4650. For more info: www.ontological.com