Pondering Ionesco's The Bald Soprano
Romanian born Eugene Ionesco, contemporaneously with Irish born Samuel Beckett, both writing in France (and in French), brought to the forefront of Western stages a new form of avant-garde theatre which became known as the Theatre of the Absurd. Eschewing traditional, straightforward dramaturgy, they wrote plays which defied conventional structure in that they variously abandoned surface logic and continuity, and playfully created surreal worlds and situations which illuminated a bleak vision of the human condition. While he brings his own style and sensibility to the stage, Edward Albee is the most celebrated absurdist American playwright.
In The Bald Soprano, his first successful play, Ionesco takes us to a suburban London house where Mr. Smith, sitting with his face hidden behind the newspaper that he is reading, jerks his leg up in reaction to each of 17 clock chimes, and in response to the chimes, Mrs. Smith notes that it is nine o'clock. Mrs. Smith prattles on ridiculously about the just concluded family dinner. When Mr. Smith eventually lowers his newspaper, his speaks nonsensically about the odd travails of a family in which a man, his widow and their son and daughter each bear the name Bobbi(e) Watson. Mrs. Smith hostilely complains that men primp too much, and Mr. Smith responds in the same tone that women drink and swear. Their maid, Mary, informs them that their very late guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, are arriving. Exit Smiths, enter Martins. The Martins talk to one another as if they were strangers. Only after slowly establishing sequentially that, among other things, they live in the same house, same room and same bed, and each has a daughter named Alice with one red eye, do they realize that they are married. They then fall asleep.
And onward and sideways. Silly arguments among the two couples. Strained conversations with long pauses. Doorbells ringing, but no one is at the door. The visiting Fire Chief tells long and odd pointless stories concerning animals. Mary and the fireman turn out to be old lovers. In a fierce, senseless argument between Mr. and Mrs. Smith, "Cockatoos," he repeatedly screams at her, with her screaming back, "Ka-Ka." After a blackout, The Martins are seen in the same house, sitting exactly as the Smiths were at the beginning of the play. They now replay the opening scene precisely as it was played by the Smiths.
Although the 70-odd minute play is most often performed with a another short Ionesco play as a curtain riser, producer Bonnie J. Monte has chosen to present The Bald Soprano without one. However, in its place, Monte follows each performance with a talkback session between the audience, the cast and the artistic staff of the play. Given the difficulty of the play and the unreceptiveness which some subscribers will surely have to any absurdist play, such discussions can provide a stimulating and entertaining arena for the sharing of interpretations and insights.
My problem with this Bald Soprano is that I did not see it as reflecting on such matters as man's isolation and inability to communicate, or even upon marital relationships. And I didn't feel any sense of menace, without which the final scene (repeating the first with the second couple), plays as merely absurd and annoying. There must be menace in the disappearance of the Smiths, and their replacement by the Martins. So what am I left with. A satire on the well-made play with its dull and banal, pale and false imitation of "normal" life. A statement by Eugene Ionesco that deadening, old fashioned plays are "out" and it is time for breathtakingly imaginative, surreal theatre. The titled Bald Soprano who always combs its hair the same way represents theatre as it existed when this play was written. And thus, in today's world, where the old fashioned, well made play is not only usually vilified, but has become an endangered species, The Bald Soprano is no longer fresh or pertinent. .
The strikingly interesting set by Mimi Lien (a giant wooden packing crate whose two visible sides form a triangle at front, near center stage; to the sound of a mechanical music box, the sides roll back and the top rises to reveal a garish brightly wallpapered, middle class living room) is a major plus. Matthew Floyd Miller (Mr. Smith) is delightfully reminiscent of John Cleese. Miller, Kelly McAndrew (Mrs. Smith), Greg Johnson (Mr. Martin) and Mary Bacon (Mrs. Martin) are fine in their comic movement and line readings with creating any distance between themselves and the roles which they play. Angela Pierce (Mary) and Walker Jones (The Fire Chief) complete the talented ensemble.
Not having seen any other production of The Bald Soprano, I cannot tell whether the strong, confident cast members with their excellent timing and amusing body language and line readings, impressive in and of themselves, have failed to find a fear and darkness lurking within the absurd humor which would make the play relevant. Or whether Ionesco's The Bald Soprano has become a relic of a glorious past. It is even possible that The Bald Soprano is no match for Ionesco's funny and powerful Rhinoceros.
In any event, subscribers and aficionados of the theater of the absurd, when you attend The Bald Soprano be sure to stay for the post performance discussion. And if you have any questions and/or ideas to contribute, do not hesitate to do so.
The Bald Soprano continues performances (Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m.) through August 26, 2007 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600. online www.shakespeareNJ.org.
The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco: directed by Matthew Arbour