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THEATER REVIEW: "The Lesson" & "The Bald Soprano"

Stop making sense

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Thank goodness for MuCCC. The Neighborhood of the Arts-based theater has been around almost five years and continues to stage the kinds of works that most local theater groups wouldn't dream of touching. Take, for instance, "The Bald Soprano" and "The Lesson," the Eugene Ionesco double-bill currently being staged at MuCCC by John W. Borek Presents. Ionesco — a Romanian playwright considered by some to be the father of absurdist theater — is not exactly a community-theater staple. His esoteric works are challenging for cast, crew, and the audience alike.

At the performance I attended, a patron approached director Michael Arve after the first play ended and asked, "But what did it have to do with a bald soprano?" Absurdist theater is an acquired taste, and it requires the audience to put aside preconceived notions of what theater is or should be. The pieces by definition are inherently nonsensical. In the case of the plays currently on stage at MuCCC, however, you might find that there is a method to the madness if you can let go and simply accept the works for what they are.

The evening begins with "The Bald Soprano," Ionesco's first play. The piece features two couples, the Smiths and the Martins, who are dressed identically. Each husband and wife pairing discusses various banal subjects — what they ate for dinner, community gossip, how the couple may or may not have met — often stating facts that are blatantly contradicted in the next sentence. Sometimes the characters don't seem to be actually communicating with one another at all. Eventually incidental characters The Maid and The Fire Chief enter the picture, but there's no real plot. The defining note to the piece is that all the dialogue is spoken in a crisp, refined English accent and in a very...measured...pace and tone. The program explains that Ionesco was inspired by English grammar books and the one-dimensional "characters" featured in them, and despite the seemingly senseless nature of the play you can see deeper meaning informing the proceedings.

The second play, "The Lesson," is more direct in its messages, though still plenty absurd. An ambitious young pupil shows up for a private lesson with a wizened professor. The dynamic starts off pleasantly enough, with the teacher initially impressed by the student's answers. But the facade quickly falls apart as the student demonstrates an inability to reason and relies almost totally on fact regurgitation. Meanwhile, the professor loses his own grip on reality, becoming angrier and angrier as he spouts off increasingly bizarre lectures.

Both plays raise interesting questions about Big Things, including language, education, civilization, and the general pointlessness of it all. And even if the bulk of the dialogue seems random on a cursory level, there's some keen insight there.

Take, for instance, the professor's language lecture in "The Lesson." He makes the point that people speaking entirely different languages are wrong when they think that they're saying the same thing when they make statements like, "I live in the capital." He has a point: a Spanish citizen who says "I live in the capital" is talking about an entirely different place than a French citizen who says "I live in the capital." Similarly, we use multiple different words to refer to numbers (figures, units, etc.) and yet they all supposedly mean the same thing. Why the different terms? Shut up and think what you're told to think, kid.

"The Bald Soprano" also speaks to the inherent fallacies of society, and how ludicrous it is when you think about it. We act the way we act because we are trained to do so. Language is a false construct. Manners are manufactured. We are taught these things, but to what purpose? What would happen if we all just stopped playing by the rules?

Both pieces are well rehearsed, directed, and performed. The entire cast is game for the wild ride set out before them, and given that they are in many cases trading lines that have nothing to do with one another, it's an especially impressive endeavor. Toward the end of "The Bald Soprano" the main four actors — Meredith Powell, David Byrne, Gregory Nunn, and Karen Craft — engage in a rapid fire, round-robin-style exchange that borders on free association.

The timing at the performance I saw was flawless, including the moments when all four actors had to shout in unison. In "The Lesson," Roger Gans has to deliver some incredibly long nonsense passages and somehow keep track of it all, and sell a mental collapse to the audience, as well. Meanwhile, MJ Savastano as the student has to say the same line over and over again — "I have a toothache" — but make it sound different and more insistent each time.

But are the plays worth seeing? That depends on your threshold for experimental theater. I found the set-ups amusing, and some of Ionesco's word play is quite witty. But there came a point in both plays where the novelty of the concepts wore off and the repetitious nature of the dialogue wore very thin; it almost felt like the playwright was trying to push viewers out of the play. The endings recaptured my attention, however.

Director Michael Arve says one of the things that draws him to absurdist theater is that it allows the audience to "laugh at the tragic." Both shows provided some giggles even as they dealt with some pretty grim subject matter, either implicitly or explicitly. If that sounds appealing, you might give the shows a shot — you're unlikely to see many things like it anywhere else in the region. Just don't go in expecting to see a hairless person hitting high notes, or for anything to truly make sense.

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