“I certainly do exist. Help me,” a character pleads in Old-Fashioned Prostitutes: (A Love Story), the new play by Richard Foreman currently in performances at the Public Theater. I’m sorry to say I could not help this person, because, despite what he said, I wasn’t even sure if he existed.
This play, if you can call it that, is also directed by Foreman, who has come out of a self-declared retirement from the theater, to helm it at the Public. Having never seen a work by Foreman before, I researched his background and knew not to expect a traditional piece of theater. Foreman, whose works were frequently seen at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village in his earlier years, has long reigned as the king of experimental theater in New York. But, despite my research, I left Old-Fashioned Prostitutes completely baffled, uncertain of what I had just experienced.
The play, which I have been told, features a man looking back at his past, is staged on a set decorated to (sort of) resemble a boudoir. Luxurious cloths and pillows strew the stage, as well as items that I assume are meant to be symbolic, such as pieces of fruit with needles shoved through them hanging from the ceiling, which certain characters strain to reach as they deliver their lines. Old-Fashioned Prostitutes contains no clear narrative or plot, or even theme, really; although at times I noticed lines that I thought contained misogynistic undertones.
This scrambled story is narrated by a man who is sometimes called Samuel and is played by Rocco Sisto, who recounts (I think) his encounters with two women named Gabriella (Stephanie Hayes) and Suzie (Alenka Kraigher). Dressed like stylish women from the 1920s, the taunt and tease Samuel, speaking in breathy, dream-like voices. Samuel, wearing a monocle, a beret, golf shoes and an ancient open book on his stomach, reminisces and interacts with the women.
There is certainly desperation in Samuel’s interactions with Gabriella and Suzie, but I’m not sure what exactly he is desperate for. It’s unclear to me whether he loves or hates the women, especially Suzie, given that he pleads with another, “Never allow the beautiful Suzie to disappoint me,” and refers to her as, “Beautiful, silent Suzie.” But at the same time, he remarks, “Isn’t it amazing how much more comfortable I feel when I don’t look at that woman directly,” and when Suzie declares she can read his thoughts, she immediately becomes less beautiful to him.
The production of Old-Fashioned Prostitutes is visually intense, with lights flooding the audience and loud gunshots and unexplained noise effects taking place at full volume. A recorded voice often orders the actors to, “Hold it,” or declares, “OK.” It frequently stated, “End of play,” when, in fact, it was not.
I understand that Old-Fashioned Prostitutes was not intended to be a traditional narrative show, and while I can appreciate that intent, I cannot say I appreciated this production. While some delight in this kind of quandary, I do not, and I left the theater extremely puzzled and also disappointed in myself that, despite my research and preparation, I had not garnered more from this experience. While one character in Old-Fashioned Prostitutes stated, “I feel my question has been answered with a certain elegance,” I cannot say the same. Instead, I only have more questions.