The Bald Soprano
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 14, 2009
Everything about One Year Lease's presentation of Eugene Ionesco's seminal play The Bald Soprano is crisp, smart, and elegant. When you arrive in the theatre, you are immediately confronted by James Hunting's distinctive set, which is a round elevated stage completely encircled by a filmy white curtain—the promise of what will appear on that proverbial wooden "o" is tantalizing and exciting. You also become quickly aware of a recording playing in the room. It features a man with an authoritative voice reciting instructions that don't necessarily make sense about how one should behave ("Whenever someone says the word 'fire', throw yourself on the ground"—that sort of thing). As we listen to this striking ambient noise, it becomes fuzzy as to whether these instructions are intended for us or for the actors who are about to join us. The gauntlet, thus, is thrown down by director Ianthe Demos: who is this play about—us or them?
Once the play proper begins, the answer reveals itself, and as Ionesco intends we find ourselves implicated in the foolish-seeming antics of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, their maid Mary, their guests Mr. and Mrs. Martin, and the unexpected visitor near the end of the play, The Fire Chief. As you may know, what transpires in The Bald Soprano is a weird parody of everyday suburban social life, crafted by the playwright from phrases found in an English language primer. In the first segment, the Smiths, seated together in their very sparse living room, converse at one another about various trivial subjects, though something more substantial seems to be brewing under the surface. Then the maid announces the Martins, who, it turns out, are very late for dinner. The Smiths chastise their guests for their tardiness, complaining that they are very hungry as a result (although you could swear you just heard them talking about the food they ate). The Smiths then abandon the Martins, leaving them to sort out just exactly who they are and how they know each other. Finally, the Smiths return and a kind of macabre party atmosphere takes over, until the arrival of the Fire Chief, whose pressing business is easily diverted in favor of some rather odd storytelling.
The play reduces fatuous, passive rituals to an exaggerated and bleak view of their essentials, exposing a sad inertia that reveals quite a lot about human nature (such as what was on Ionesco's mind in 1950 when he wrote this, which was how to explain how the banal evil of fascism could ever take hold in a so-called civilized society). The ideas underlying The Bald Soprano remain relevant, though the shock value of the play's approach is considerably diminished in a popular culture that has been so thoroughly shaped by such diverse Ionesco adherents as Edward Albee, Monty Python, and Jerry Seinfeld.
Demos's production lets the text's innate absurdity do all the work, offering a seamless, simple, and spare staging that keeps the words and their (non-)meanings centerstage. The only diversion from this plan is the casting of a man (Gregory Waller) as the maid; he wears a dress, apron, and maid's cap, but also army boots and a moustache. I'm not sure exactly what we are to make of him.
The other actors capture the almost-dazed though precise vacuity of their characters: Sarah-Jane Casey and Nick Flint are haughty as the Smiths while Christina Bennett Lind and Jim Kane are apologetic as the Martins. Danny Bernardy's Fire Chief is at once tentative and convivial.
The strain of sustaining communication and the impossibility of achieving actual understanding are, ironically, eventually conveyed with stunning clarity. Demos's realization of the piece ultimately feels like a neat demonstration of its intention, and I'm not sure we can ask much more of a revival than that.