SOPHIA=(WISDOM): Part 3 The Cliffs
It’s been around 20 years since anyone presented the work of Richard Foreman in Sydney. Patrick Kennedy Phenomenological Theatre Company audaciously present Richard Foreman's 1972 play, “SOPHIA=(WISDOM): Part 3 The Cliffs” at New Theatre this month. Richard Foreman – doyen of the NYC 1970s avant-garde and founder of Ontological-Hysteric Theatre which made its debut in 1968. His plays have been a mainstay of the weird and wonderful (and wise?) ever since.
From memory sound designer and director Max Lyandvert (who worked briefly with Foreman in the late 90s) presented “My Head is a Sledgehammer” at B Sharp (2001) and “I’ve got the Shakes” at Darlinghurst Theatre (2004) and I recall something at the Reginald (before it was the Reginald) possibly also by Lyandvert and company called Kitchen Sink. At the time, Keith Gallash writing in “Real Time” noted, “With their associative constructions and broken theatre rules, Foreman’s plays particularly appeal to connoisseurs of contemporary performance and visual art, but they can be refreshing for the jaded theatre palate. In “I’ve got the shakes”, says the company, “the characters are disoriented, unsure of where the stage begins and ends. They are caught up in inscrutable plots and speak as though they have just begun to learn language. The play only exists in the present moment, and the whole evening is made up of numerous present moments...which invite the audience to refocus their attention and revise their interpretation.” For the characters, performers, and audience alike this should prove an entertaining night of metaphysical pratfalls and existential sublimes.”
Now, Patrick Kennedy is UK trained director, designer, and producer. He leads a razor-sharp ensemble through a piece which left an original critic of the piece feeling “as though I were being lobotomized with a rusty knife”. To be honest this is high praise – in a theatrical landscape where we often leave the theatre feeling indifferent to what has taken place. Kennedy’s production may not engage us emotionally, but it is intellectually curious and visually arresting with its endless beginnings. This is very hard work to describe: A series of moving tableaux, enigmatic interactions; maybe it ultimately means to be just what the title of his work says it is: WISDOM. But in the process, our traditional sense of theatrical expectation is continually jabbed and prodded. One among many projections reads: "I hope this is interesting enough to suit your purposes," and on the soundtrack there is the sound of a gun shooting far off in the distance. We are continually asked to think about contradiction and paradox. The occasional waiting and inaction are for the sake of something like Zen contemplation. It’s not boring. There are various attempts to describe a narrative for the purposes of press releases and web site blurbs, but these things just do not apply to this unique work.
Scratchy records, eclectic music and sound effects, amplified voices and recorded instructions are all part of the complex technical mix – operated, I noted on the afternoon I attended, by Kennedy and his associate. This production really is a complex labour of love. Outfitted in elaborate 18th Century costumes – all made and worn with a cheeky contemporary touch – the principal characters perform in an idiosyncratic style and speak similarly. Of note is Luke Visentin as Ben – his charisma and technical prowess make for a focussed, gripping and playful performance. Kirsty Saville, Beatrice McBride, and Lara Kocsis are a formidable trio of women who are supported by a further six actors all of whom work with dedication or realise Kennedy’s vision. Impressive. One other element of Foreman's work must be mentioned: his stage is filled with pulleys, ropes, levers, and esoteric contraptions that sooner or later do something or are used in a particular way. Kennedy honours this instruction from the script and creates an oversized model box as set design – which is fully appreciated when an actor arrives on stage wearing a set model box as a mask. Yep – its’ out there! And a comprehensive program that can be picked up at the door contains a directorial note and essay which might be useful.
I am pleased I spent 2 hours investigating this unpredictable and idiosyncratic work. One for theatrical adventurers, ontological nerds and those keen to sample gems from the avant-garde.