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Above average Joe - Wily actor Foust pulls shenanigans at the Court.

Publication: Time Out Chicago
Published: November 8, 2007
Client: Court Theatre

By Web Behrens

"We met in 1996, when I was house manager for Chicago Shakespeare, then Shakespeare Rep," director Sean Graney recalls of Joe Foust. "Joe was an actor, and he molested me over a merchandise case."

When asked for his recollection about initially meeting Graney, Foust chuckles. "He reminded me of that story, and I said, 'I don't remember, but that sounds like me!' He was the house manager at Chicago Shakespeare in their old Ruth Page space, and he said he was bent over, cleaning some glass, and I came up and just popped my crotch against his ass. It was like, oop! He claims I didn't know him at the time."

The mercurial Foust has always had a mischievous side. It's a quality he put to excellent artistic use in the aptly named (but sadly defunct) Defiant Theatre, which he cofounded upon arriving in Chicago in the early '90s. That same quality is still serving him well, under Graney's direction (they've never collaborated before), in Court Theatre's current production of What the Butler Saw. Set in a psychiatric ward, the outrageous Joe Orton farce reportedly enraged London audiences in its 1969 debut.

Had he been there, Foust would have been delighted (as others surely were) by the play's rampant sexuality and its irreverence toward church and state. But while Orton's final play was cementing a minor revolution in the theater, Foust was an infant in Monmouth, a small farming town that he locates on a map, "in that breastlike protrusion of Illinois." (In other words, not far from the Quad Cities.) His science aptitude earned him a choice of several college scholarships, including one to an infamous military academy ("Imagine how different my life would be if I went to West Point!"). He opted instead to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where, in characteristically subversive style, he betrayed the cause of reason after one year, deserting chemical engineering to study acting. Happily, the full scholarship still bankrolled his B.F.A.

Even while performing on the university's stages, Foust was striking out on his own. Along with a number of collaborators—including his future life partner, actor/director Linda Gillum—Foust and company produced their own shows. "We probably called ourselves the 10-Inch Players or something stupid," he snorts—but it led to a good long run as Defiant Theatre after they all moved north.

While performing, writing and/or directing a number of raw, frenetic shows with Defiant—most notably, the highly successful Action Movie: The Play, which co-opted the physicality of summer blockbusters for the stage—he also built up an impressive resumé of classics over the years. His first Chicago credit was Kabuki Medea, directed by Japanese visionary Shozo Sato; he's also acted the Bard at Chicago Shakespeare, Brecht at Steppenwolf and Shaw with Remy Bumppo. In addition, Foust spends a few months each year outside of Chicago, often acting or directing at Peninsula Players in Door County, Wisconsin.

Now 38, he's lived with Gillum in the same Andersonville apartment for more than a decade, and he's also happily settled professionally, with no "day job" to distract him. "I've basically made my living in some form of theater, television or film," he says.

That doesn't mean there aren't new challenges to explore. The chance to act in an Orton play, with Graney at the helm, was enough to lure Foust away from a planned third appearance in Theater Wit's annual mounting of The Santaland Diaries. "I've never seen [a production of What the Butler Saw] that fully succeeded," Foust says, hoping to defy that legacy with Graney. "It's an odd duck. It's difficult to make it what it used to be."

Even if homosexuality and cross-dressing aren't shocking to audiences today like they were almost 40 years ago, Butler "is still such a well-constructed farce," says Graney. "We are trusting the language, and aggressively not shying away from the fringe situations Orton set in motion."
Foust enjoys the idea of "pushing societal edges" like Orton did. And he probably wishes he could've been there in 1969, when "people were standing up and ripping up their programs and yelling 'Filth!' Almost nothing we could do today would make a crowd stand up and react like that. Unless I'm shitting on a baby."

What the Butler Saw is in previews at Court Theatre.


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