SU Drama rises to the absurdistchallenges of staging two Ionesco one-acts
Whatever your reaction to seeing Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Chairs,
two of the most discussed one-act plays of the last century, little
performed in these parts, you can’t ignore a huge contradiction in
their appearance. In his lifetime, Ionesco (1909-1994) likely never saw
such classy production values as can be found during the current
mountings presented by the Syracuse University Drama Department, even
with all the chances he had to see The Bald Soprano, which opened
in the 1950s and never closed. It is now completing 52 consecutive
years, but it’s in Paris’ scruffy Theatre de la Huchette, not a patch
on SU’s Storch Theatre inside the Syracuse Stage complex.
Here’s the second contradiction. These
short works that emerged from companies with no budgets, staged in back
alleys, are now honored in academia, where students pay good money to
learn how to perform them. Assuredly, Ionesco did not see
respectability in his future.
Theater of the absurd has been around
for nearly 60 years, but it is still not housebroken, thank heaven.
Think of “absurd” as a nickname rather than an ideology because an
American critic, Martin Esslin, thought it up without asking Ionesco or
any of the others how they felt about it. In any case, Ionesco was his
own man, a Rumanian immigrant who grew up hating the theater and did
not start writing plays until he was in his late 30s. Once in France he
was attracted to the brutal comedy of older Frenchmen like Alfred Jarry
of Ubu Roi, an assault on middle-class decorum. In these early
plays Ionesco also resembles Belgian painter Rene Magritte, in which a
playful but seemingly nonsensical surface makes hash out of pedestrian
attempts to explain them all. But it’s not too hard to see where he’s
The Bald Soprano (1950) and The Chairs (1952)
might have been written only two years apart but they weren’t designed
to run in tandem. Together, with intermission, they’re nearly three
hours. Bald Soprano is a domestic farce, with disruptions like simulated sex behind a couch, in which there is frequent laughter. The Chairs is
a bleak family drama about facing up to resisted truths. As one-line
descriptions, of course, the same words could be applied to thousands
of stage works, but they wouldn’t resemble these. So part of what makes
these two run is that Ionesco is spoofing the genres he has inherited
as well as the language in them.
The setting for The Bald Soprano is
middle-class England, in part because it was Ionesco’s difficulty in
learning English that inspired the play. We enter the comfortable home
of the Smiths, which Sang Min Kim’s set makes a collision of the
pretentious (hunting scenes, Gainsborough prints) and the garish
(wallpaper only a Limey could love). Mrs. Smith (Kayla Levitt) wears
crinolines and high heels around the house, like an upper bourgeois
housewife in 1950s advertisements and sitcoms. She prates endlessly
about something, as her husband, Mr. Smith (Tony Cavallo), barely
notices. His mustachioed nose is buried behind The Times (before Rupert Murdoch dragged it into the mud), but wordless grunts suggest communication.
Another generically named couple
arrives, Mr. Martin (Brad Koed) and Mrs. Martin (Kristin Morris).
Instead of observing what’s before her, like a tourist in Disneyland,
she whips out a vintage Instamatic camera and takes flash pictures
before immediately moving on to the next subject. Mr. Martin thinks he
may know Mrs. Martin from a previous encounter, but she says she can’t
remember. They then run through a lengthy shaggy-dog dialogue about
having come from the same distant city on the same train, live in the
same house and sleep in the same bed. Does this mean they are husband
and wife? Ionesco is borrowing a trick from logic class in which all
circumstantial evidence can be reversed by small but crucial
contradictions. They may sound absurd, but, hey, that’s the point.
Also in the household is the wiseacre maid, Mary (Jasmine Thomas), who initially looks like one of those Upstairs/Downstairs servants
who knows more than the masters. Joining her is the heroic-seeming Fire
Chief (Michael Owe), who is in fact Mary’s lover.
The idea that language does not
communicate (one line of dialogue goes, “Cockatoo, cockatoo,
cockatoo!”), so unsettling in 1950, has since gone mainstream in
everything from Harold Pinter plays to the recent movie The Invention of Lying.
Director Rodney Hudson gets more out of the dialogue by having
performers deliver some of the rounded emotiveness of realistic drama
instead of the marionette mechanics seen in other Ionesco productions.
All the players achieve moments of hilarity, but Jasmine Thomas’
insinuating Mary and Kristin Morris’ lingering laughter as Mrs. Martin
stick with you after the action is over.
In The Chairs Hudson has his two
players, Old Man (Peter Hourihan Jr.) and Old Woman (Kelsey Stalter),
speak in an even more realistic style as they are people with fully
comprehensible emotions and dreads. It’s usually a thankless task to
have college actors portray old people, but Hudson and company faced up
to the problem immediately. Sang Min Kim’s large, dusty set implies a
disused warehouse, where a few chairs are on the floor and dozens more
hang from the rafters. More important, Marc K. Fisher’s lighting design
emphasizes the gloom of the setting while obscuring the youthful
features of Hourihan and Stalter. Devon Ritchie’s smelly looking
costumes, heavy makeup and superb wigs build up the effort. Best of
all, both move with pained, arthritic but not stylized steps.
Ionesco’s view of what’s “absurd” here is bleaker than in Bald Soprano, more in line with Camus’ vision that Martin Esslin adapted. Many audience members may feel a sense of déjà vu, even if they have never seen or read The Chairs before,
when they hear the duo frantically preparing chairs for invisible
guests—including the Emperor—who will hear an Orator arrive to proclaim
the Old Man’s discovery of the meaning of life. So much of The Chairs is
a matter of, ahem, “waiting for the Orator.” Not surprising, then,
countless college literature instructors have asked their students to
write analyses comparing The Chairs with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which opened in Paris one year later. Only the Orator does arrive,
and he’s a tall, sleek fellow (Nicholas Petrovich) in a white suit. But
wouldn’t it be absurd to receive consolation in that?
Here’s the good news regarding SU Drama’s teaming of The Bald Soprano and The Chairs.
Well-designed sets and costumes, disciplined performances and polished,
intelligent direction do not dull the sharpness of Eugene Ionesco’s
These one-acts run through Sunday, Nov.22. See Times Table for information.