‘The Bald Soprano’ at The Nomadic Theatre at Georgetown University by Francine Schwartz

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The Nomadic Theatre’s production of The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesca is a very funny play and a wonderful production. Lorrie Damerau’s surrealistic set consists of a frieze of over 50 teacups, a collection of bird cages containing unexpected treasures like a teddy bear and a bottle of scotch, or a clock. A door is left open displaying a jumble of furniture suggesting a Sandy sort of natural disaster, and other views  suggest this room is a haven from a hazardous external environment. People are not who they seem, fires are anticipated, and when there is a knock on the door, no one is there, and time moves erratically forward, faster, and faster.

bald1The cast consists of two couples, the Martins (the hilarious Victoria Perrachon and Sean Keady) and the Smiths, as well as the maid and a ‘public servant’ who drops by. The pretentious hospitality of the Smiths (the equally hilarious Arianne Price and Greg Keiser)  spoof the English Bourgeoisie, or at least what we think we know of them. Of course, there must be tea. There must be toasts. One can never have enough argyle. But usually when a woman removes her hat, there is not a second hat revealed. The illogical, usually nonsensical and contradictory banalities are fun to observe. There is frequent repetition, response and variation practiced by all of the characters, none of whom can be relied upon to be objective or even consistent.  Philosophical propositions are proposed which we consider and shortly reject, such as the contention that since captains are expected to go down with the passengers on a sinking ship, doctors should be expected to do the same if their patient dies. There are many “Who’s on First” exchanges. Mrs. Smith introduces the subject of the odd travails of a family in which a man, his widow, and their son and daughter each are named Bobbi(e) Watson.
Ionesco mocks this pretentious middle-class English household by making the inhabitants mouth arbitrarily assembled sentences from an English phrase book he was studying.

The host couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, are so stuffy they’re caricatures of British restraint, though their disconnected discourse is delivered with a frenetic urgency and rapid fire dialogue. At irregular intervals the Smiths are interrupted by the French maid Mary (the very funny Sarah Frasco) whose insouciance is delightful, as are her orange patent leather boots.

 left to right: Arianne Price as Mrs. Smith; Victoria Perrachon as Mrs. Martin; Sean Keady as Mr. Martin; Greg Keiser as Mr. Smith. Photo by Katie Mitchell.
left to right: Arianne Price as Mrs. Smith; Victoria Perrachon as Mrs. Martin; Sean Keady as Mr. Martin; Greg Keiser as Mr. Smith. Photo by Katie Mitchell.

Their visitors, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, arriving as if by accident, discover through coincidental confessions that they are indeed husband and wife and parents to a daughter with one red and one white eye. Mary, the French maid, enters to tell the audience that, despite these astonishing parallels, the Martins are not who they think they are, since the actual daughter’s red eye and white eye are reversed from those of the child they describe. .

In a parody of stilted bourgeois small talk, the Martins and Smiths are astonished to hear of a man tying a shoelace and a man reading the newspaper. Perhaps, they suggest in their eagerness to find some common ground, it was the same man.
When the doorbell is rung but there’s no visitor, the husbands insist that it could not have been rung by no one, while the wives claim that perhaps no one did. The visitor turns out to be ‘someone else,’ stopping by to ask for a conflagration to quench.After he relates some long and irrelevant tales, and the Martins and Smiths erupt in a crazed potpourri of phrases that finally crash into silence. The play ends as it began, with the Smiths indulging in the same small talk – except now it’s done by the actors who played the Martins. Interchangeable identities.
Both stiff-upper-lip couples play their part extremely well.  Arianne Price and Greg Keiser display deadly accurate accents as the fatuous and insipid Smiths, and add a dotty delivery worthy of the Monty Pythons. Victoria Perrachon, and Sean Keady  were hilarious during the amnesiac Martins’ “recognition” scene. As the editorializing maid, Sarah Frasco delivers a special ode with contagious delight.   Grayson Ullman, in the funniest portrayal, flays about as the rubber-faced and sooty  public servant like an escapee from a Mack Sennett one-reeler.
Arianne Price as Mrs. Smith; Sarah Frasco as The Maid; Victoria Perrachon as Mrs. Martin.  Photo by  Katie Mitchell.
Arianne Price as Mrs. Smith; Sarah Frasco as The Maid; Victoria Perrachon as Mrs. Martin. Photo by Katie Mitchell.

Like many plays in the theatre of the absurd genre, the underlying theme of The Bald Soprano is not immediately apparent, or even consensual. Many suggest that it expresses the futility of meaningful communication in modern society. The script is charged with non-sequiturs that give the impression that the characters are not even listening to each other in their frantic efforts to make their own voices heard.

Despite an easy conclusion that this is a parody, Ionesco states in an essay written to his critics, that he had no intention of parody, but if he were parodying anything, it would be everything. According to Ionesco, he had several possible endings in mind, including a climax in which the “author” or “manager” antagonizes the audience, and even a version in which the audience would be shot with machine guns. However this was ultimately settled for a cheaper solution, the cycle. Since there are two couples in the play, it begins the first time with the Smiths and the second time with the Martins, to suggest the interchangeable nature of the characters.

Credit goes to Director Robert Duffley, Producer Natalie Gallagher, Light Designer Ryan Smith, Set Designer Lorrie Damerau , Costume Designer Brendan Quinn, as well as a special hurrah to Props Designers Caitlin Dutkiewica and Allie Van Dine for their well thought-through adaptation of this classic.

All the young actors perform with great spirit, and a range of emotion in this difficult work. The forty-five year old play hasn’t lost its laughs. Six well-cast and well-coached actors worked overtime (and came to school a week early) to make this hysterical evening a great success!

Running Time: One hour and 15 minutes, with one short break.
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The Bald Soprano plays through January 26, 2013, at the Devine Studio Theatre at Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University – 37th and O Streets, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.