One of the first things to strike you about a foolsFURY production is its sheer kinetic energy and rigorous physical vocabulary. Hovering somewhere between modern dance and mime, or maybe the fashion runway and the circus, the movement of the actors onstage suggests tightly coiled regimentation and an unpredictable, acrobatic freedom. Bodies rewrite the most seemingly inconsequential gestures as larger than life or in an altogether different register, so that you might suddenly see and wonder at them.
But the next thing to strike you will surely be the words. From its first outing nearly a decade ago to recent San Francisco and New York runs of artistic director Ben Yalom’s translation and staging of The Devil on All Sides (French playwright Fabrice Melquiot’s magic-realist rumination on Yugoslavia’s civil war) and the remounting in September of its exquisite version of the Henry James ghost story The Turn of the Screw (directed by company member Rod Hipskind), foolsFURY remains wedded to deep, often darkly comical, and alluring texts steeped in the mysterious potency of words.
The physical athleticism and stylization onstage grounded in a unique, evolving synthesis of techniques from Tadashi Suzuki and Viewpoints to commedia dell’arte and Jerzy Grotowski are, of course, inseparable from the company’s approach to such texts, whether they’re Martin Crimp’s silky and sinister ellipses (Attempts on Her Life), Don DeLillo’s gloomy, incantatory wisecracking (Valparaiso), Kirk Wood Bromley’s neo-Shakespearean, post-American rag (Midnight Brainwash Revival), or even Shakespeare himself (in one inimitable take on Twelfth Night that went solely by its telling subtitle, What You Will). This pairing of soaring physicality and textual depth has been a driving force behind the success of the small but restlessly active, ambitious company (which has also become a vital teaching center in the theater community) since its noteworthy debut in 1998.
Together with other choice elements including the sensitive use of music, sound, and scenic design foolsFURY’s heightened theatrical language is, at its best, a surprise and a challenge to audiences, inspiring and even requiring them to develop new ways of receiving a performance. Yalom concedes that it has taken some time to achieve all of this, including a stable group of like-minded, technically practiced actors. He claims he wasn’t thinking beyond a single play when he almost inadvertently founded the company. "I had no idea what it meant to be a professional theater director or artistic director," he recalls. "I was working with a couple of companies, trying to get them to hire me to direct a play specifically The Possibilities, the Howard Barker play. After a while I started to get to know the scene, and it became pretty evident that that wasn’t going to happen. So I decided I was going to produce it myself."
Novice though he was, he had long been thinking about what makes theater different and vital, a train of thought the company members have since taken up together. "After spending a lot of time experimenting, we started to find certain aesthetic forms that were interesting. But to me it really comes down to the larger question ‘What should be the role of this art form in our contemporary culture?’ Because, frankly, if it doesn’t have a specific value and something that is unique about it, then, much as I love doing it, it would be irrelevant. I don’t think that’s the case [with foolsFURY], though it’s taken me a long time to figure out how and why."
And the name? "I made it up," says Yalom. "It really fit the Barker piece, and I think to a certain extent it fits [the company]. What underlies a lot of our sensibility is a collision of things that are uncomfortable and things that are funny because they’re uncomfortable. We’ve done a couple of shows that would be categorized as comedies. The far greater amount of work has been things that have been funny but funny because they are challenging and thought provoking and, certainly sometimes, very upsetting. The Barker was a perfect example of that: the ‘fool’ and the ‘fury’ just sort of crammed together."