The critic Martin Esslin coined the term “absurd” in reference to theatre in the introduction to a Penguin anthology of plays entitled Absurd Drama. The term evokes an anxious confrontation with a meaningless world, a loss of illusion and solution and fantasy, and an attempt to make sense of nonsense. Like Sisyphus, we’re all pushing a rock up a hill and watching it fall and pushing it up again and watching it fall until even time offers no solid ground.
It’s not strange, then, that Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist “anti-play” The Bald Soprano is alienating, but it is strange that it’s hilarious. After its first showing in 1950 the audience either laughed or left miserable. McGill Tuesday Night Theatre’s first performance of the play had similar results, though the perpetual laughter made it difficult to measure the amount of sadness.
“Such kakas such kakas such kakas such kakas such kakas such kakas such kakas. I could never have imagined that my dream of one day flying a cacao tree while playing the Crhihuahua would one day come true in the suburbs of London,” said McGill’s director Julien Naggar in the director’s note. “There is logic to that statement in the same way that there’s a logic to everything that is said in this ‘anti-play.’” Despite being utterly ridiculous, unpredictable, fragmented, and irreverent (or perhaps because of this), McGill’s The Bald Soprano is deeply challenging and affective. Ionesco thought misery was constant, and this “anti-play” goes beyond just presenting the misery of the absurd by putting it right there in front of us, where we feel a part of it.
In the first scene, Mr. and Mrs. Smith sit in their “English middle-class interior.” Mrs. Smith, who is played by a man (James Thorton), darns socks and rambles about dinner, grocers, and eating well. Mr. Smith (Michael Ruderman) sits across from his wife and responds with a slight click of his tongue. He finally speaks to argue about a doctor. Then follows a contradictory conversation about a large family, every one of whom is named “Bobby Watson.” The characters are immediately obscure and nonsensical but oddly human. The audience can’t help but ask if Mrs. Smith is a woman or a gay man. And what the hell are they talking about? As the maid (Lara Oundjian) tells the audience later, we are supposed to make sense of the nonsense. Gender and sex, among the many concepts the play challenges, appear eerily illogical. The most basic things – the phrases in small talk and the everyday motions of walking to the door and sitting on chairs – appear completely absurd.
Much could be said about the play’s complexity and affective power. What separates The Bald Soprano from other artworks dealing with similar issues is that it forces them upon us. Presenting the things that are assumed to be logical and obvious in an illogical way shows how illogical and unobvious they are.
The performance itself deserves as much praise as it received laughter. Naggar chose a superb cast and crew and provided them the freedom to show it. The minimalistic stage design is clever and off-putting, as is the music. The actors’ talent for dialogue is only outshined by their masterful and eccentric physicality.
Thorton does not even have to move for his body language to raise questions. He sits like a ’50s woman, and right away it’s unsettling – not because he doesn’t get it right, but because he gets it so right it confuses what “right” means anymore. His back looks frail and his knees shiver. Like the whole play, he embodies a precarious cusp: at any moment things might fall into madness.
His/her/their husband, Mr. Smith, does the same in the opposite way (embrace the logic of contradictions!). Ruderman, like any perfectly normal ’50s British man, conducts himself with a masculine tenseness that is so stiff it’s breakable. When his wife talks to him he tenses his jaw and narrows his brow, and when he finally bursts into an intense moment of anger nothing about him changes. His temper is there the whole time, even in the way he crosses his legs while he reads the paper.
Danji Buck-Moore, who plays Firechief-Benjamin Harwick III, both a fire chief and a door, moves with a hilarious and endearing childlike charisma. He maintains a balance between energetic ambition and sensitivity, both sexual and intellectual. His stories about animals and family trees make no sense at all and carry on without any intelligible train of thought, yet it is obvious that in his mind they are intelligible, and he is desperate to tell them.
His lover, the maid, played by Oundjian, is fiery and haunting. Like all the actors, she plays her role as a stereotype, but is at the same time base and individual. Her subconscious sexuality manifests itself without any need for restraint. Her smile, perhaps the highlight of her character, is mad. More than any other character she revels in this insanity. Perhaps this is why she appears so natural in such an entirely unnatural setting.
Mr. and Mrs. Martin (who are really imposters of Mr. and Mrs. Martin) played by Spencer Thompson and Phae Novak respectively, parallel Mr. and Mrs. Smith in many ways. They conduct themselves in the same typical manner. They keep their backs straight and refrain from any gesture that suggests honesty – a model of perfect small talk decorum. But there is something gentle behind Thompson and something innocent behind Novak. Thompson lives the absurd like a boy. He’s amused by it. The Bald Soprano captures the subjectivity of emotion and time (at one point there is an extremely long and hilarious awkward silence), which Thompson adopts into his physicality. Novak’s eyes widen as the play goes on. That, and her raspy, playful voice-delivery, would be endearing in any normal setting, but in the play she is the most alienated. The more innocently she looks at things, the more detached she is from the way the things actually are. And the way things actually are is what The Bald Soprano destroys with such perfect imperfection.
That is the absurd, and McGill’s interpretation of it is both visceral and gut-wrenching; it will either wrench your gut with laughter or misery.
The Bald Soprano is playing in Morrice Hall, 3485 McTavish, from
March 10-13, and March 17-20, at 8 p.m.