Sophie Gets the Horns
Ethnography is, as I now understand it, a study of cultures and civilizations apart from our own (whichever that may be) and so it comes as no coincidence that the college class taken by this play’s four protagonists is essentially Ethnography 101. That is because Sophie Gets the Horns is very much an ethnographical text in and of itself, something that could be studied in such a class; the tribe of late twentieth century tertiary students its chosen topic.
This play, put on in a church attic by indie company The Riot Group, begins with a sort of performance art prelude. As the audience is being lead across the stage to the stadium seating on the far wall they are walking amongst and around three of the shows actors, who are sitting static on the floor staring into the screens of their laptops. At first it’s hard to know whether this is a part of the show or if it’s simply a side-effect of the space having no real backstage area; these days it’s not unusual to see people hectically checking out their cyber-status before signing off for two hours, but then I guess that is the point.
Behind them stand some dramatic paper stacks, artifacts of an ancient era not now ten years past and this dichotomy instantly introduces the problem that this play wishes to tackle; the dissonance between now and the mid-nineties. The play opens in the present, where all of the characters are so strongly bound to their screens, but then spends the majority of its time in the past via flashback and the close and open nature of the interpersonal relationships here highlight the distinction quite clearly.
More importantly though is that Horns convincingly paints a picture of its chosen era, something that it certainly does to my mind do. The callbacks and pop-culture references really work to recall the scene without ever becoming over the top: the outfits are now antique, the stereotypes strange but stirring( I had forgotten about white girl rapper types) and characters quote both Nirvana and No Doubt with an admirable naturalism. In fact it is the literal music that most set the scene for me; each track is a tasteful instrumental homage to a cult hit of the time and it’s ambience really added something to he experience, evoking the era with a deft ease.
My thoughts on the productions other technical elements are all for the most part just as positive, but the one that most struck me was the choreography. The stage directions, something that informally never notice, are an integral part of this piece; the play is quite small and quite simple on the surface, but it never seems like it because this constant chaotic motion imbues in them an aesthetic complexion befitting a much bigger event, the eye never stays still while watching this show. Admittedly though as I am unfamiliar with the art a lot of the interpretive dance elements introduced went over my head; the semiotics of all but the simplest examples too much for my mind to make sense of.
This is, unfortunately, where the play started to seem a little problematic for me; there is an ambiguous art-school poeticism to it that I don’t particularly have the palette for. As the professor in the play keeps repeating it is important that all ethnographers remain disinterested in that which they are studying but I’m not sure that the Riot crew can say that about the nineties; for as much as they skewer the style and rituals of these past people they rarely prove themselves to be very different. Just as it is hard to find the line between before and during the play it is also tough to distinguish the daring works of Alice from that of this work. When Sophie seems maudlin, myopic or much too self-important for its own good I have to wonder where to draw the line between satire and serious statement and this interest, this self-interest of sorts, troubled me somewhat.
For example Alice’s obsession with Sylvia Plath was a strong observation – we’ve all known a student who was obsessed in this way with a single writer – but I also felt that the play itself was similarly obsessed with her works and probably dedicated far too much time to discussing them, especially in the final act’s play-within-a-play about her and husband Ted Hughes. Yes, it is a thematically important moment but so is seeing the present lives of the plays actual characters, something that sort of seemed skipped over in comparison.
If i hadn’t read to the contrary i could easily have assumed that the writer was a thirty eight year old white woman given its authenticity; but this is both a boon and a breakage. So Sophie is a strongly evocative and illustrative example of ethnographical fiction, it takes us back into a time and place that shaped the generation currently stepping up into power. In a way this was their Great War, their Korea,these people are veterans of the nineties and this play is their personal ‘Nam flashback, so there is an import to it. The impact of this though is lessened by those seemingly less evolved elements, those that felt too much like they were coming from the mouth of a student. So as a play it is flawed, but I cannot think of anything that I would rather have aliens find in an archeological dig on the era; it’ll bring you back to your own past and all that entails, just minus most of the pain.