“All art aspires to the condition of music” wrote Walter Pater. Several people have written brilliantly about the political and intellectual content of Richard Foreman’s play Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland, but, to me, the play is the culmination of a process I’ve been watching for 35 years: Foreman’s theater coming closer and closer to a kind of pure musical composition of gestures, words, props, light, music, and now, video.

I have, since seeing the play, read in Foreman’s blog that one of his interests in this piece was to see if he could invite the audience to let their attention be distributed over the whole of the event; to focus on the counterpoint between elements rather than on the individual objects or events. If this is the case he has utterly succeeded with me.

My first comment to my companion on leaving the theater was “that was so beautiful it was scary.” But the beauty I found so terrifying within it was never the beauty of an individual event, object or sound; it was always in the musical relationship between events: the way the lights changed against the music, the way the movements of props went over the video, the way that lines of text sounded under the actor’s gestures.

My companion told me that he watched the video about 2/3 of the time, as opposed to the live action. I found myself watching the live action about 2/3 or the time, as opposed to the video, but this may be the result of a lifetime of training in watching Foreman’s theater, in which I have developed the habit of forcing myself to look at those parts of the composition which are inherently “harder to see” (such as live actors in front of a video) in order to achieve a more evenly spread field of perception. In any case, Foreman’s use of the dual worlds of video/stage in only the most obvious of the piece’s devices for insuring that one doesn’t get hypnotized by a single focus. The aesthetic thrill of the piece increases exponentially as one allows oneself to have a wider and wider awareness of the overall counterpoint.

For a primarily musical piece, though, Foreman’s sense of rhythm is intriguingly quirky. In many a Prokofiev piano piece the composer seems to consistently choose the “wrong” (i.e. surprising) note — revealing not tone deafness, but rather a supremely aware ear that knows exactly how to subvert expectations. Just so, in the sputterings, lurches and sudden dyings away of the rhythms of the lighting, video, and music in Deep Trance Behavior, Foreman is always choosing the surprisingly “wrong” rhythm, and only his super-attuned sense of phrasing enables him to do this.

At first I found it surprising that some sections of the piece have such a profound emotional effect — indeed parts of the piece are highly passionate. But that is only surprising if one thinks of emotion in the theater as coming from character, plot or concept. In music, we are used to hearing emotional energy unleashed in a totally abstract form. Think of the play as music, and its emotional impact is completely natural.

In one way Foreman’s pieces of the last few years show a radical break with his past. In Pandering to the Masses he wrote:

“Text, text, that’s what counts. Not music, not ideas, not light, not decor…”

The basic structure of most of his play has been that they are “about” the written text. Visual and musical elements of the mise en scene exist as a kind of resonating chamber to expand hidden elements of the text. In Deep Trance Behavior this is no longer so. (At least as experienced by me; it may in fact still be the way the piece was created.)

In this piece every layer of the counterpoint: video, sound, movement, props, lighting, and text, is formed into repeating loops with variations. The changing relationship between these loops and their variations constitutes the main field of focus for the play. Thus the mise en scene no longer seems to be in any meaningful sense “about” the text. Instead all of the elements, text included, have been carefully equalized in their effect, so that while they all resonate with each other, no single layer is perceived as having generated all of the others. Equalized scenic and textual elements loop around themselves, while we are surprised and awakened by their overlapping. “But what is that overlapping? A certain joie de vivre.” (The last line of Foreman’s Rhoda in Potatoland.)