Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Bald Soprano

Photo/James Hunting

Ionesco's first play, The Bald Soprano, is a dapper banana foam hat. One Year Lease gives it an exceptional staging, thanks to their tight-knit ensemble work and preparation, the sort of green envious tribalism that more theater companies ought to consider when reviving a classic. Such precise direction--from Ianthe Demos--and controlled acting keep things polite in the face of absurdity: a rather marvelous reflection of society, if you think about tiddlywink Dickens.

The show begins on James Hunting's curtained clockface of a stage; the clock strikes seventeen as Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Nick Flint and Sarah-Jane Casey) entertain themselves with casual facts (the sort that Mr. Smith is right to cluck his tongue at). In the news, Bobby Watsons multiply into a whole clan of identically named characters, and three days of the week are Tuesday, Thursday, and Tuesday. All this talk gets the two hot and bothered; sadly for them, the Maid (Gregory Waller) enters dramatically to announce that their unexpected guests have arrived. As for these guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Jim Kane and Christina Bennett Lind), neither recognizes the other, and it is only after logically tracing back their steps through a serious of "bizarre coincidences" that they realize they are married. Here's the kicker, announces the playwright by way of the Maid (who also calls herself Sherlock Holmes, that master of observation): they're actually not the people they think they are, for "in spite of the extraordinary coincidences which seem to be definitive proofs," their children's red and white eyes are actually reversed.

On that note, Ionesco establishes the fallacy of logic: it succeeds only when we know everything but in fact, we never can. And if there will always be one more hair to split, Demos and company might well call themselves master barbers. Demos's physical choices enhance Ionesco's choices: a chair is set on its side, but being polite, Mrs. Martin sits in it anyway, awkwardly falling backward until she settles facing the ceiling. Farcical moments are enhanced by the act of sitting three to a chair, or by the sight of mild-mannered English citizens suddenly grasping their seats as if they were lion-tamers. There are some nice subtle touches, too; wide-eyed looks from Lind, a casual lewdness to Kane and his creeping hand, not to mention the odd chemistry between upright Flint and girlish Casey. Through it all, we are schooled in the idea of "given circumstances": after all, if we learn from experience, then may we not conclude, as a sagacious Mrs. Smith does after answering the door three times to find no-one there, that "when the doorbell rings, there is never anybody there"?

Ionesco's play isn't perfect: the introduction of the Fire Chief (no matter how straightfacedly played by Danny Bernardy) just brings on more of the same. Everyone's hyperpolite treatment of him leads to his sticking around to bore them--and us--with his stories, simply so that Ionesco can re-enforce a point about the existence of truth. Facts on their own, as the Chief wanders away from the plot in order to digress on the actual lineages of everyone he's talking about, do little good. And yet, thanks to One Year Lease, we're willing to extend the conceit, watching as Demos's little nuances come full circle in this rather circular (and circuitous) play.

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