Absurdity Abounds in High-Spirited Intime Double Bill: Ionesco's "Bald Soprano" and "Chairs" Amuse and Perplex
As the world is incomprehensible to me, I am waiting for someone to explain it," Eugene Ionesco (1912-1994) wrote in the program notes for the original 1952 production of his "tragic farce" The Chairs. Explanations are still not forthcoming in the current Theatre Intime production of The Chairs and its renowned 1950 precursor The Bald Soprano, but director Ben Mains and his adventurous undergraduate company offer high humor, scintillating creativity, and seriousness of purpose that capture the absurdist essence of these challenging and perplexing one-act plays.
The term "theatre of the absurd" wasn't coined until ten years later (in an early 1960s commentary by Martin Esslin), but the world of these two plays, or anti-plays as Ionesco conceived them, is a world without logic, a world where life has no meaning and communication is seemingly impossible. As Mrs. Smith in The Bald Soprano observes, "Yogurt is excellent for the stomach, the kidneys, appendicitis, and apotheosis." Or take her friend the Fire Chief: "Excuse me, but I can't stay long, I should like to remove my helmet, but I haven't time to sit down. (He sits down, without removing his helmet.)" This is a reflection, as if in a funhouse mirror, of the world as we know it a grotesque parody of the conformity, stupidity and barrenness of the human condition.
In The Chairs Ionesco's vision focuses on an elderly couple, who frenetically prepare chairs and welcome a huge contingent of invisible guests to their formal party. They talk with their unseen visitors, reminisce about their lives, and ultimately depart (to their deaths?), leaving the much anticipated Orator (Gracie Raterman), the only visible guest, to deliver a momentous message. Don't hold your breath, but the endings of both plays are quite stunning in their own surprising ways.
Intime's rendition provides an additional aesthetic twist or two by seating the audience on stage looking out at the youthful, frenetically lively Old Man (Scott Elmegreen) and Old Woman (Nicole Greenbaum), who perform between the rows of seats and "populate" the lighted house area with visitors by draping every imaginable variety of fabric over the seats as the play progresses and the imaginary gathering swells.
In The Bald Soprano the title, like much of the dialogue, has no logical explanation the absurdist world is a middle-class living room. Mr. Smith (Ted Hall) sits reading his upside down newspaper and ignoring his wife. Mrs. Smith (Liz Abernethy) files her nails and recounts, in mind-numbing detail, the uneventful events of her day.
The actors are back on stage and the audience take their normal seats after intermission, but the traditional domestic setting becomes less traditional here in Scott Grzenzyck's steeply raked, oddly shaped, bright orange and purple, cartoon-like room, adorned with an eccentric assortment of some thirty different clocks. Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Andy Hoover and Georgie Sherrington), another typical bourgeois couple although they seem to have forgotten they are married to each other; Mary (Uma Tadepalli) the mischievous maid, also part-time detective, poet and movie-goer; and the sociable, story-telling Fire Chief (Chris Berg) all appear and contribute to the absurdity during the course of the evening.
Having left his native Romania to live in France before World War II, Ionesco embarked on his controversial playwriting career after he had been studying a primer of conversational English. He was struck by the absurdity of the "stupefying" sentences he was memorizing and went on to write The Bald Soprano, a break from the predominant naturalistic theatre of the time. The Chairs followed two years later.
Ionesco's concerns in these plays remain at least as relevant fifty years later, and. Mr. Mains' intelligent, imaginative and engaging production of these two masterpieces vividly reveals their timeliness.
"If it is a criticism of anything," Ionesco wrote about The Bald Soprano in a 1957 essay, "it must be of all societies, of language, of clichés a parody of human behavior, and therefore a parody of the theatre too." And in discussing The Chairs, he added that he had "tried to deal more directly with the themes that obsess me; with emptiness, with frustration, with this world at once fleeting and crushing, with despair and death. The characters I have used are not fully conscious of their spiritual rootlessness, but they feel it instinctively and emotionally. They feel 'lost' in the world; something is missing which they cannot, to their grief, supply."
Mr. Mains takes a number of risks here in altering the customary staging for these plays. He uses the theatre space, including the windows on the sides of the house, in ways that are surprising but consistently true to the spirit, both comical and serious, of Ionesco's texts.
The talented, carefully rehearsed cast members throw themselves into their bizarre roles with impressive flair and commitment. They all display the requisite high seriousness in the face of utter absurdity that helps this production to soar. Mr. Elmegreen and Ms. Greenbaum in The Chairs present a child-like and peculiarly touching couple, while the focused energy of Mr. Hall and Ms. Abernethy in The Bald Soprano successfully creates an entertaining vision of domestic inanity. Ms. Tadepalli's Maid is particularly full of life and humor, threatening, along with Mr. Berg's dynamic Fire Chief, to steal the show on several occasions.
In addition to Mr. Grzenzyck's provocative set design, Ed Davisson's lighting and costumes by Jackie Bello and Jess Bonney contribute invaluably to the production.
"There are no alternatives," Ionesco wrote; "if man is not tragic, he is ridiculous and painful, 'comic' in fact, and by revealing his absurdity one can achieve a sort of tragedy." Mr. Mains and his Intime company have boldly explored here both the comic ridiculousness and the painful tragedy of these characters. The result is not the sort of engaging plot, logical resolution or even intriguing character development that traditional theater offers. The Chairs and The Bald Soprano provide instead the entertainment and sheer exuberance of a feast of absurdity and whirling words.