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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Bald Soprano

Also see Bob's review of reasons to be pretty

The Bald Soprano
(back row) Melanie Bell, Brendan Walsh; (on couch) Andrew Danish, Megan McDermott; Amanda Yachechak and Ryan D. Scott
In 1950, Romanian born Eugene Ionesco brought his first successful play The Bald Soprano to the stage. Thereafter, Ionesco, as well as Irish born Samuel Beckett (both writing in France and in French), brought to the forefront of contemporary Western theatre, a new form of avant-garde writing which became known as the Theatre of the Absurd. Eschewing traditional, straightforward dramaturgy, each wrote plays which defy conventional structure by variously abandoning surface logic and continuity, while playfully creating surreal worlds and situations which depict a bleak vision of the human condition. Edward Albee is the most celebrated absurdist American playwright.

The Bald Soprano is currently being revived, sort of, by Teaneck's Garage Theatre. Director Michael Bias has written a new translation and adaptation which moves the setting from a mid twentieth century suburban London home to the New York City suburb of Larchmont today, replete with references to Lady Gaga and Barack Obama among others. It is here that we find Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith in the sitting room prattling on nonsensically while he reads his newspaper and she does a magazine crossword puzzle. A pendulum clock chimes repeatedly, emitting jarringly differing chiming sounds, Mrs. Smith adjusts the clock, noting that it is nine o'clock. Mr. Smith wonders why newspapers print the age of the deceased in obituaries, but not the age of newborns in birth announcements. He proffers his opinion that a doctor should die along with his lost patient, the way that a conscientious captain goes down with the passengers on a sinking ship. Then Mrs. Smith introduces the subject of the odd travails of a family in which a man, his widow, and their son and daughter each are named Bobbi(e) Watson. Mrs. Smith hostilely complains that Mr. Smith drinks too much. Mr. Smith responds that she drinks all the time. Their maid, Mary, returns from the movies and informs them that their very late guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, are arriving. Exit the Smiths to prepare to receive their guests. Now the Martins are ensconced in the room where the Smiths have been. The Martins talk to one another as if they were strangers. 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, they state that they can't be talking about the same daughter because one Alice has a left red eye and the other has a right one.

Both couples have gathered in the sitting room. More prattle. Doorbells ring, but no one is at the door. Finally, the Fire Captain arrives bearing long, odd and pointless stories concerning animals. Mary (the maid) and the fireman turn out to be old lovers. A fierce, senseless argument between the Smiths and the Martins, or others, follows. A physical fight breaks out, there is some particularly obscure yelling back and forth with the sound or word "kaka" tossed about. Lights flash from red to green and to off.

After a blackout, The Martins are seen in the same room, sitting as the Smiths were at the beginning of the play. They repeat the same dialogue with which the Smiths began the play. Curtain.

During the post-play discussion, director Michael Bias incredulously informs the audience that when originally produced, The Bald Soprano was a critically panned failure. An audience member reminds us that it became known as an "anti-play," a description that has remained stuck to it even as Soprano came to be recognized as monumental, groundbreaking and influential.

It is difficult for this reviewer to get a fix on this play. At times, it seems to be a satire of the tidy, facile and predictable domestic scenes which were once the common denominator of most well made plays. It may be born of the grief, alienation, anomie and nihilism which plagued European survivors of the second World War. Lacking the sense of menace and fear which tends to be present in most of the best plays of the Theatre of the Absurd, one might presume that Garage Theatre's anything goes improvisational approach to the material (which could be described as "Saturday Night Live" takes on Eugene Ionesco) has the cost of losing them. However, menace and fear were also absent in the more traditional and classically performed, sharply staged and acted, 2007 Shakespeare Theatre of NJ production. It may be that the granddaddy of absurdist plays is not among the best or most durable of them.

In any event, the Saturday Night Live ..., oops, I mean Garage Theatre cast throws itself completely and stylishly into the improvisational comic performance at hand. Brendan Walsh and Melanie Bell (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), and Andrew Danish and Megan McDermott (Mr. and Mrs. Martin) employ a full array of sh(tic)ks and throw around contemporary names and phrases with aplomb. Amanda Yachechak (maid Mary) employs an accent of a different national group for each of her appearances, and Ryan D. Scott's here blind visiting Fire Captain repeatedly pratfalls his way to garnering laughs. Director Michael Bias has chosen to add as much chaos as his actors can generate to enliven Ionesco's classic. Given the considerable laughter opening night, it would be hard to fault this approach.

In this production, the pace of the dialogue is rapid fire, and the play runs fifteen to twenty minutes shorter than it did in its 2007 NJ Shakespeare Theatre production. While considerable changes have been made for this adaptation, I couldn't tell whether the adapted script itself contributed to the shorter running time. Like the Shakespeare Theatre NJ in 2007, Garage Theatre has not followed the traditional practice of presenting The Bald Soprano with a short Ionesco one act curtain riser, but also offers in its place a post performance Q and A discussion with director, cast and other production staff.

The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco, translation and adaptation by Michael Bias continues performances (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 8 pm / Sunday 3 pm through May 8, 2010 at the Garage Theatre Becton Theatre, on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1000 River Road, Teaneck, New Jersey 07670. Box Office: 201-569-7710; online: www.GarageTheatre.org

Cast
Mrs. Smith......................Melanie Bell
Mr. Smith...................Brendan Walsh
Mr. Martin..................Andrew Danish
Mrs. Martin............Megan McDermott
Mary, the maid....Amanda Yachechak
The Fire Captain...........Ryan D. Scott


Photo: Justin Bias


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- Bob Rendell



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