Director Julien Naggar’s production of The Bald Soprano transports the audience into an absurd world that nonetheless seems strangely familiar. Playing this week at the TNC Theatre in Morrice Hall, The Bald Soprano brings TNC’s 2009-2010 season to a climactic finish with its parlour-room madness, reshaping expectations and challenging presumptions. For theatre lovers especially, seeing The Bald Soprano is a necessity – whether or not you like the play.
La Cantatrice Chauve – translated from French as The Bald Soprano – is an absurdist play written by Romanian-born EugÃ¨ne Ionesco, first performed in 1950 in Paris, where it continues to enjoy consistent success. The play depicts the interactions of the Smiths, a typical English couple from London; their houseguests the Martins; their maid Marie; and the local fire chief.
While the premise is banal, the play is anything but. Ionesco’s piece explores social norms, revealing their absurdity through the interactions of the characters, as well as the use of repetition and non-sequiturs. Though the play’s message is unclear, the superficiality and contradictions present in the characters’ lives reveal the meaninglessness of their existence.
The historical context of the play cannot be ignored, either. Written in the 1950s, Ionesco’s presentation of modernity can be read as a response to the societal apathy in the wake of World War Two.
The Bald Soprano is an anti-play. It challenges the conventional structure of theatre and lacks a coherent, sequential narrative. The play begins and ends with a scene of English domestic life, but between these two moments is a bizarre and otherworldly descent into an alternate universe carefully crafted by the cast and crew.
When you enter the theatre at Morrice Hall, the walls are covered with clocks all showing different times, highlighting the play’s subjective perception of time. Watching the performance, time seems to speed up and slow down intermittently. The play starts with awkward, stilted dialogue between the Smiths that makes time drag on relentlessly for the audience. But as more characters enter the scene, the lines begin to lose their coherence and the play becomes more fast-paced, even difficult to follow at times. However, it isn’t the dialogue that captures your attention in this production, but rather the physicality of the cast.
Though the character’s lines are often interchangeable, each cast member has a distinct way of speaking and moving about the stage. In a play where the replaceability of the characters is so crucial, the actors are to be commended for finding a way to make their characters distinguishable. In fact, the first few weeks of rehearsal were devoted to “prancing around,” in order to capture the essence of Ionesco’s madcap personas.
Michael Ruderman, playing Mr. Smith, was the actor that made his presence felt most. The sexual chemistry between the fire chief (Danji Buck-Moore) and Marie the maid (Lara Oundjian) was also enjoyable, though it may be a bit too much for some people to handle. Finally, James Thorton’s portrayal of Mrs. Smith is worth noting, as there was some ambiguity as to whether he was playing a gay man or a woman, which made the role more interesting to watch.
Although this production remains faithful to Ionesco’s script, many aspects of the show have been developed or modified. The staging of the play is minimalistic, using modern furniture and props appropriately suited to the piece’s postmodern themes. Modifications aside, The Bald Soprano delivers an incomprehensible yet dedicated performance. Uncontrollable laughter is really the only possible reaction to the absurdity of the cast’s onstage antics. The commitment to Ionesco’s revolutionary vision is indisputable, but the play is sure to polarize viewers into “love it” and “hate it” camps.
The Bald Soprano plays at Morrice Hall, March 17-20.