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A CurtainUp Review

Bad Boy Nietzsche
By Les Gutman

Nobody likes to be chained to the wall by somebody else's imagination.
F. Nietzsche via R. Foreman

Friedrich Nietzsche
The twentieth century was not kind to Friedrich Nietzsche. He died just as it began, but his work lived on to be embraced by all the wrong people. Although he had disavowed his friendship with the composer Richard Wagner over the latter's anti-Semitism, his own sister insinuated his philosophy into the Nazi propaganda machine where it was maneuvered into supporting notions of nationalism, militarism and of course racism. His perspectivism fed the "God-is-Dead" movement its slogan, but his subtler lessons about the ephemeral nature of truth were largely overlooked. Although the century brought him the attention he always expected to receive, it no doubt left him spinning in his grave. In life, he had been compassionate and infirm; in death, he came to represent insanity and power. 
Sarah Lilley and Gary Wilmes
(Photo: Paula Court)

Richard Foreman's take on Nietzsche (Gary Wilmes) focuses, in his typical kaleidoscopic style, on what may be deemed the two pivotal personal experiences of Nietzsche's life: his unfulfilled love for a Russian woman with whom he had an engaging but platonic relationship, here called The Beautiful Woman (Juliana Francis), and his reaction to seeing a horse beaten in the street by a coachman, denominated The Cruel Man (Kevin Hurley).  Both of these no doubt fueled the (probably syphilis-induced) insanity that consumed the last decade of his existence. 

Foreman's plays always give the feeling of being verbal (as well as visual and sonic) collages. In Bad Boy Nietzsche, he offsets his own often-lyrical language with the random words of a deteriorating Nietzsche ("doodles on the margin of his philosophy"):
I write on table, write on wall 
with foolish heart a foolish scrawl. 
You say--the hands of fool deface the table and the wall 
erase it all! 
I try to help the best I can 
I wield a sponge as you recall 
but when the cleaning up is done 
let's see this super sage emit 
upon the walls, sagacious shit!
Word shards fill the visual landscape and, as cued, chalk scribbles, easily erased, abound. 

When I reviewed Foreman's last effort, Paradise Hotel, I made reference to his "signature dream-tableau style, in which primary process thinking finds a rather direct path to the stage.".We find much of this again here, and although Nietzsche's "process" has developed a definite impairment, there's hardly a clearer means of assaying his essence. Do not, however, expect either lucid exposition or fresh observations. Instead, you will find something of an existential nightmare, Foreman-style, in which even the pure voice of The Child (Sarah Louise Lilley) seems to have been processed through the mental equivalent of a funhouse mirror. 

Voices here, which would be easily heard without amplification, are rendered through Rent-style head mikes that have much the same distancing effect as Foreman's familiar use of clear plastic sheets to separate the audience from the very proximate stage. It's as if Foreman were begging us to do precisely what we must do to appreciate his work: take a step back and engage the cacophony of images and sounds -- blinking, sometimes blinding lights, buzzing bells and all -- not through a microscope that will focus on elements, but through a telescope that lets us observe the whole. It's only through this means that one could possibly hope to compress not only Nietzsche's life and life's work, but what follows in its wake, into this frantic seventy minutes of theater. 

Trying to describe the sensory assault Foreman and his performers hurl at the audience is, ultimately, pointless. Those familiar with his work will find much what they expect; novices, some of whom will become fans and some of whom will not, are assured a rich, funny experience the thoughtful significance of which may not occur to them until it is over. I've never gone to see one of Richard Foreman's annual shows more than once, but I've always felt I would need to. Such is its nature. 
The assembled cast of four is excellent and, as always seems to be the case with Foreman's shows, fearless. Wilmes, who returns from a memorable performance in Paradise Hotel last year, embodies Nietzsche's combination of lunacy and anxiety splendidly. Also returning is Francis, who brings a carnivalesque nature and a dazzling faux-Eastern European accent to The Beautiful Woman. Lilley, new to this craziness, has no trouble joining in, nor does Hurley, who enages and alienates by delivering his lines in a voice that often conjures up a cheap television police show. 
Chaining Nietzsche to the wall of Foreman's imagination may not stop the spinning, but it should at least reverse its direction. 

CurtainUp's review of Paradise Hotel
Written, directed and designed by Richard Foreman 

With Gary Wilmes, Sarah Louise Lilley, Kevin Hurley and Juliana Francis 
Running time:  1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission  
Ontological Theatre Website:  
Ontological Theatre at St. Mark's Church, 131 East 10th Street (@2nd Av.) (212) 553-4650 
Opened February 8, 2000 Closes April 30, 2000 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 2/9/2000 based on a 2/6/2000 performance

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