What’s the use of absurdist theater?
Why do critics champion this tradition of anti-plays, which stretches across modernity from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in 1896, to Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist comedy The Gas Heart (1921), all the way to Eugène Ionesco’s 1972 Shakespeare farce Macbett and beyond?
Because without them there would be no Monty Python, that brilliant troupe of English and American comics whose contribution to television and film in the 1970s and 1980s will outlast the collapse of Western culture.
That’s pretty much the best answer I could come up with as I sat down in the upstairs exhibition space at the handsomely furbished Bethany Mission Gallery a few blocks north of City Hall for a performance of Ionesco’s masterpiece, The Bald Soprano.
At this year’s Fringe Festival, the six-character comedy will be performed through Sept. 24 by Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC), a Philly-based theater troupe that bills itself as one of the very few (maybe the only?) American theater companies dedicated entirely to producing absurdist works.
Dedicated is the right word. Jammed with tongue-twisting word plays, rapid-fire verbal jousting, and crazy tempo changes, The Bald Soprano isn’t an easy piece to perform. And it’s not so easy to watch, either, despite the fine efforts of IRC co-founder Tina Brock, who directed this production and stars as one of its goofy antiheroes, Mrs. Smith.
Fact is, although it has flashes of comic brilliance, The Bald Soprano isn’t my idea of a good time. Like most anti-theater, it seems more interesting on paper than it is in real life. Absurdist plays upend accepted theatrical conventions in a bid to critique our assumptions that language is a transparent window to reality. They portray situations when dialogue actually compounds confusion, when poetry actually obscures truth, and when the attempt to understand the other leads to conflict, not solidarity.
The critique is well-placed and a needed corrective to our tendency to assume that we can find a surefire formula to attain truth, beauty, and goodness if only we had better science, or better art, or better leadership.
But pack all that into actual theater and generally you get a mess. Very few playwrights are able to do anything of lasting value with this material. Most of the great ones, including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, use absurdist tropes to accomplish something that transcends mere critique. The trouble with Ionesco’s early work, including The Bald Soprano, is that it doesn’t go anywhere beyond mere deconstruction.
The Romanian-born playwright reportedly wrote the Bald Soprano when he was trying to learn English and had to repeat phrases that seemed absurd out of context.
The one-act piece is set in the drawing room of a middle-aged English couple living a comfortable bourgeois life in the London suburbs. Mr. Smith (IRC co-founder Bob Schmidt) and his wife may or may not have a happy marriage. They may or may not have children. And they may or may not have just had dinner with their good friends, the Martins. When we meet the genteel couple, they are having a contentedly bovine moment after finishing a large, satisfying meal with their friends, a meal expertly prepared by the Smiths’ beloved maid, Mary (played in a wonderfully subversive performance by flamenco dancer and choreographer Thomas Dura).
But the Martins are nowhere to be seen, and the Smiths realize they are both really, really hungry. Did their friends ever come over? Did dinner actually happen?
That’s Ionesco’s basic conceit in The Bald Soprano: The play is a series of vignettes in which the characters establish certain facts, then do an about-face. The results can be enthralling, as in one sequence shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Martin finally show up four hours late. Left alone while their hosts are off changing into their dinner clothes, the two characters suddenly behave as if they’ve just met. Then they realize they have many, many things in common, including a daughter named Alice, and so may have already met somewhere.
John Zak (Iris Productions’ The Lyons) and Sonja Robson (The Lover/A Kind of Alaska at The Walnut) are hands-down brilliant as the Martins, and they navigate this long, incredibly complicated sequence with aplomb. The scene is so utterly strange, so insanely funny, it will have you falling out of your chair.
Despite my antipathy for The Bald Soprano, I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t familiar with the genre or with Ionesco. You won’t find a better production in the region.
The Bald Soprano
Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium production as part of The Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Through Sept. 24 at Bethany Mission Gallery, 1527 Brandywine Street. Tickets: $15-$25.
Information: 215.413.1318, fringearts.com or IdiopathicRidiculopathyConsortium.org