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Theater's 25th-Year Drama Is Dense, Intense

SAMUEL'S MAJOR PROBLEMS. Play written and directed by Richard Foreman. Presented by the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. At the Ontological at St. Mark's Theater through Feb. 28.

AUDIENCE members can't see things very clearly in "Samuel's Major Problems," the new theater piece by Richard Foreman, because in front of the stage there's a transparent plastic barrier that captures the audience's reflection and superimposes it over the action of the play.

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Then again, one could say that the audience can see very clearly indeed, since looking into ourselves - especially into our unconscious hopes, dreams, and dreads - is what Mr. Foreman wants to encourage.

Foreman is one of the most original and challenging artists in theater today, and since such artists aren't always highly valued in our commercialized culture scene, it's a pleasure to realize that his Ontological-Hysteric Theater is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Being the ornery fellow he is, Foreman has marked the occasion by concocting one of his gloomiest plays.

The problems of Samuel, the drama's hero, are major indeed. At the end of a night-long party, he can't shake off two other guests who remain behind with him - a doctor and a woman, who may actually be the devil and the angel of death.

Or maybe it's the other way around. In any case, they entice Samuel into a series of bizarre encounters, conversations, and entanglements within the party room. Sometimes they are seductive, other times violent or just plain mystifying. Yet Samuel seems oddly in tune with their disjointed discourses - more in tune than the average audience member is likely to be - and this signals the possibility that he may profit or at least learn from being in their company. At the conclusion of the play he realizes t hat "howls of despair" are all he can contribute to the universe, but since these serve the universe's incomprehensible purposes, the howls are "music" after all.

While that's not exactly a happy ending, its ambiguous tone fits Foreman's artistic strategies, which have more to do with intellectual stimulation than with conventional storytelling. Like the most concentrated modern poetry, his plays don't spin out narratives; rather they accumulate ideas and associations around a central theme, pitching these at the audience in a fragmented form that partakes of dreamlike logic.

"Samuel's Major Problems" is puzzling despite Foreman's program note - which informs us, for example, that the emptiness of two vases on the stage represents "the potent primary material of life itself." Whether one strives to understand such enigmatic stuff or simply takes in the amazing rhythms and images of the show, it has a density and intensity that are as hard to shake off as Samuel's two companions.

The play is performed with nonstop energy by Thomas Jay Ryan as the title character and Steven Rattazzi and Jill Dreskin as his macabre conversation partners. It was written and directed by Foreman, who also conceived the amazing "sound track" of the piece - a stream of cinematically assembled words, noises, and music - and designed the crowded setting, full of unexpected objects in equally unexpected configurations. It's a full-fledged art work in itself.

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Foreman's next project is a production of his new play "The Dance," which he will direct in April for the Naked Angels Theater Company in New York.

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