Romanian-born, French-educated, Eugene Ionesco was a Baudelaire scholar who decided at the age of 40 to learn English. While copying out the rudimentary, cliched sentences of his English primer, he was hit with the absurd nature of language and the way it creates binaries and paradoxes that seem to dissolve all sense and logic. His first play, The Bald Soprano, turns those cliches and nonsensically simple phrases upside-down and sideways. Ionesco, who went on to write more plays, which were banned by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, was eventually inducted into the Academie Francaise.
How unexpected, then, and how refreshing to see an Ionesco play produced not by a university drama department, but by a small independent troupe, and to watch it not in a velvet-seated auditorium, but in a small cinderblock box used for improv comedy shows, attended by people expecting a good laugh, not a history lesson.
But like all of Ionesco’s plays, The Bald Soprano is a difficult play to produce, and the laughs it delivers come from a different source than those on, say, Whose Line Is It, Anyway. The production, presented by Plumbline Players at Raleigh’s ComedyWorx, is disappointingly amateurish in some respects, but manages to deliver the spirit of a rarely produced play to a popular audience.
Ionesco calls his plays “anti-plays,” because they contain only the most basic outline of plot and character, which often get dissolved as the performance progresses. In this case, Mr. and Mrs. Smith are sitting in their living room when they’re greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Martin, announced by their maid, Mary. After various arguments–whether or not there is someone at the door when the doorbell rings, for instance–the Fire Chief enters, hoping to find a fire that needs putting out. The play takes jabs at the stuffy English and their class hang-ups, but its real target is the way language creates a society that keeps each of us locked in isolation.
Plumbline’s production suffers from some unfortunate defects–lighting that leaves the actors in darkness much of the time; direction that discards some of the most outrageously absurd and significant lines; dead-air pacing that, while true to the stage directions, is too much to ask of a company that’s still struggling with its cues.
But this production does have a very good thing going for it: Sheila Outhwaite, who plays the lead role of Mrs. Smith exactly the way Ionesco’s characters must be played–straight. She maintains her fakey hostess smile and manages to deliver lines such as, “I’m waiting for the aqueduct to come and see me at my windmill,” with total conviction and purpose. Ron McCoy is also good as Mr. Martin, injecting the role with personality and a strong physical presence. (He gets to deliver one of the classic lines of 20th-century theater: “Cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos …” )The Fire Chief as played by Dean Jones conveys absurd charm in his goofy facial expressions and physical comedy. Ultimately, the company struggles, but keeps the mood light while conveying some of the playwright’s uniquely pessimistic messages.
A s a prelude to The Bald Soprano, ComedyWorx will be screening its Five-Minute Funny Film Festival, which contains mildly to moderately funny moments. Don’t sweat if you miss it.
For reservations and tickets, call ComedyWorx at 829-0822 or see www.comedyworx.com.