01 November 2009

Balled soprano

Cutting Ball Theater opened its tenth season this weekend with a fast, fun, and fluid production of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, directed by company Artistic Director Rob Melrose in his own new translation. I waited until after the performance to look at all the program notes, so it wasn’t until the play started that I remembered that this is the play Ionesco wrote because he was studying English and was fascinated and amused by the very precise yet nonsensical world of language texts, in which one person will ask simple questions repeatedly of the other, or one person informs the other of things they both already know.

Years ago, during various attempts to study various languages, I too was puzzled and amused by the strangely precise and arbitrary dialogue format, until someone explained to me the underlying theory: if the dialogues make intuitive sense, the student will simply assume the meaning instead of puzzling out the grammatical forms and vocabulary. Beneath the rational tone of the dialogues, the nonsensical and the arbitrary ensure that you pay attention.

In other words, the play isn’t just a random series of non-sequiturs and sketches. There’s a set-up here for a standard realistic play, with the Smiths (David Sinaiko and Paige Rogers), a proper bourgeois couple complete with a clever, backtalky maid named Mary (Anjali Vashi), waiting for the Martins (Donell Hill and Caitlyn Louchard), another proper bourgeois couple whom they have invited for dinner. The Fire Captain (Derek Fischer) also shows up.

The dialogue all makes surface sense; it just doesn’t make sense that anyone would say these things (as when Mrs Smith animatedly describes to her husband the meal they have just eaten). The pleasantries start to give way to little outbursts of rage or sarcasm. Exposition is contradicted moments later with contradictory information. Gradually the participants lose physical control and start hurtling themselves into the beautiful tangerine walls or somersaulting over the couches. After this complete breakdown into Dada, the play circles in on itself as the Smiths repeat their dialogue from the beginning of the play – only now the Smiths are the couple we’ve come to know as the Martins. Order, if not reason, is restored.

I saw this play years ago, and read it even longer ago, so I thought I pretty much had done it, and frankly wasn’t all that excited about seeing it. But I thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering something I thought I knew. I continue to be amazed at how close to “real life” the Theater of the so-called Absurd really is. Just as the behavior of the people next to me during last season’s Ionesco echoed the themes of that play, so the whole contrast in this play between the banal expected civilities of middle-class life and little eruptions of rage and violence was echoed by the woman next to me, who kept crossing her legs into my space and kicking me without any sort of apology. Why are these idiots always next to me?

But she’s already seen it, so I don’t think you’ll have to sit next to her. If you have any curiosity about this play, let me strongly recommend this production, which runs through November 22. The cast is uniformly outstanding. As a Cutting Ball bonus, I should mention that Shakespeare’s caustic Troilus and Cressida is the November 8 offering in the Hidden Classics series, which I had forgetfully left off my November fun stuff list.

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