By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
Richard Foreman’s work inhabits a weird house of mirrors world of seemingly disconnected but oddly concurrent “thoughts.” One can hardly call them “lines” in any theatrical context that the real world recognizes. He collects these random thought-lines of dialogue, spoken by no one in particular to some miscellaneous someone, in stream of conscience notebooks. Later he mines this raw material to create a play. In this, he is much like Beethoven, who wrote down every musical thought that ever crossed his fevered mind.
One never lacks for material when working in this system. To the contrary, the problem is assembly. Foreman cobbles together a play out of these shards about once a year and produces it at his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in New York City. In some ways, this process is like buying a box full of broken glass pieces and then making them into a mosaic. A telling introduction into Foreman’s hallucinogenic visions can be had by entering “ontological” into Google and reading the Wikipedia entry. You will find a complete understanding of the word as slippery as the dialogue in his plays.
Fortunately, we all do better with understanding the other word in the theater’s name – “hysteric” – but resign in despair when trying to connect the two. Let’s just leave it at avant garde and move on.
Here is the really interesting part of the story. Foreman makes his raw material notebooks available on the web to anyone who wants to do the same thing he does – make plays out of them. He charges nothing and only asks for program credit and a disclaimer that he was not responsible for the outcome (indeed). Want to write a Forman play? Just go to http://www.ontological.com, click on “notebooks” and start assembling. It won’t take long to realize that Foreman has left at least half of the playwright’s job to you. Who are these people? Why are they saying that? To whom are they saying it? How is it being received/perceived? Are they saying that line in a fit of ecstasy or a fit of pique? Maybe just in boredom? Are they alive or dead?
All this is a long, but necessary, way around to The Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s production of Symphony No. 0: a requiem. Director/Adapter Tashina Richardson took on the above-mentioned Sisyphean task of creating a play out of Foreman’s “Zero” notebook. When perused in written form, “raw” is an understatement. It is riddled with misspellings and weird typos, which Foreman says may or may not be intentional (thanks a lot). Much of it reads like psychobabble on the page, such as: “You see this orange? Yes. To be consistent, shouldnít [misspelling his] you answer-- no, I see the light bouncing off something.”
What Richardson conceives and creates out of this mishmash is, indeed, a play – and a moving one at that. Here is what I think I saw, but in typical Foreman fashion, you may see something completely different. She starts with a concept that one of her characters dies early on but remains in the action – sometimes seen and other times unseen. A sort of un-blithe spirit, as it were. The other characters are clearly drawn in relationship to the deceased and to each other (at least I think they were). While all the characters are named in the program, no one uses these names, so I am at a loss to use them here.
Male #1 is the one who is dead. Female #2, who loved/doesn’t love him, is in therapy trying to come to terms with her loss. As to the other pair, Male #2 finds his life in the bottom of a bottle while Female # 2 finds sex the key to life, the universe and everything. They are obviously made for each other. Male #3 is sometimes the psychoanalyst and sometimes in that horrible no man’s land of being “just a friend.”
On this skeleton, Richardson brilliantly hangs Foreman’s words. While the fourth wall is never pierced, Richardson opens a peephole into the complex lives of the characters she creates. We are voyeurs, only seeing the snatches of their lives that Richardson lets us witness, without knowing what came before or after. But we certainly (well, maybe) know who they are.
If this all sounds a little vague, it is because writing this is like awakening from the strangest vivid dream. It all made great sense while dreaming it, but now when trying to recall the details, it is just out of reach. In the words of Foreman, life is “always on the verge of happening.”
The five young actors in Sundown Collaborative’s production are amazing and deliver virtuoso performances. Just learning all this talk is a major accomplishment. Each line is delivered with such conviction and so completely in character that you know exactly what is going on at each moment. Well, you certainly feel like you should know what is going on, if you could only put it together. The skill of the actors keeps you on Foreman’s “verge” for two solid and uninterrupted hours. Morgan Hillan, Olivia Emile, Cody Lucas, Zane, Harris, and Marti Ethridge are all terrific.
Lighting advisor Kenneth Farnsworth had virtually nothing to work with in the slightly rundown dance studio where the performance takes place. He admirably made do with track lights with taped-on gels and a couple of Big Lots floor lamps.
Jessica Gafford’s costumes seemed like she asked the actors to bring in something they wanted to wear, but isn’t that the “Foreman” way? The gun-metal gray folding chairs were OK at first but became an endurance challenge as the work progressed. Definitely bring a cushion.
So, the mention of the torture-by-chair reminds me to get to the bottom line. Anyone interested in the theater as a place for creativity should go see this superbly realized opium dream of a play. The Neil Simon crowd should take a pass. Anyone who admires transcendental acting should also go. And those who admire the art of the director should not miss this production. It is Tashina Richardson’s conception and deft directorial hand that make the show.