The Bald Soprano | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Bald Soprano


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Pig in a Poke Theater Company

at Strawdog Theatre

The Bald Soprano is a play so seminal that you may feel you've seen it even if you haven't--its influence is that great. All the more reason to return to the source, to see whether The Bald Soprano itself, the quintessential absurdist drama, still holds up.

Written in 1948 and first performed in 1950, Eugene Ionesco's best-known work satirizes a closed world: a pretentious middle-class English household. Ionesco mocks its inhabitants by making them mouth arbitrarily assembled sentences from an English phrase book he was studying. Their irrelevant remarks parody the cliches and rote emotions of bourgeois conversation, the detritus of a frozen life. Of course arbitrary identities are common in phrase books; Ionesco goes one step further to suggest that, yes, such tourist aids actually mirror bourgeois reality.

Though The Bald Soprano is based on linguistic exercises--the title comes from the non sequitur "The bald soprano always wears her hair in the same style"--there's nothing dry about the results. The host couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, are so stuffy they're caricatures of British restraint, though their disconnected discourse is delivered with an often frenetic urgency that such nonsense scarcely deserves: irrelevant anecdotes about well-preserved corpses and indistinguishable relatives who all bear the same name. At irregular intervals the Smiths are interrupted by the French maid, who doubles as a chiming clock.

Their visitors, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, are even more alienated. Arriving as if by accident, they 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. More anarchy, more arbitrariness.

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 domesticate these threatening wonders, it was the same man.

When the doorbell is rung but there's no visitor (shades of Godot), 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 the Fire Chief, stopping by to ask for a conflagration to quench.

After the Fire Chief relates some long and irrelevant tales, the French maid regales the company with a poem about a wild fire, the chief remembers he's overdue for an upcoming blaze, and the Martins and Smiths erupt in a crazed litany 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.

Forty-three years old, The Bald Soprano still bags useful game: bourgeois banality, the paralysis of habit, and the loneliness that underlies empty prattle. Happily the play hasn't lost its laughs, as this revival, a first effort from the Pig in a Poke Theater Company, aims to show.

Director Cathy Hartenstein has rethought the play, taking a child's-eye view of these grown-ups, as if Ionesco's characters had stepped out of a life-size storybook. That concept appears even before the show begins: The Strawdog Theatre lobby has been filled with penmanship charts and posters, children's books, and tapes of children's songs are played. Inside the theater, the actors are clad in bright primary colors and play children's games (a few too many of them) as a sort of preshow warm-up. The set, by Mike Broh, is made up of picture books through which the actors step onto the stage, like so many pop-up illustrations come to life.

It all makes for ingenious Alice in Wonderland-style fun, though I'm not quite convinced that the absurdist views of The Bald Soprano require an innocent perspective. In fact it's probably more chilling for Ionesco's respectable automatons to be seen as adults by other adults, for the appropriate shock of recognition. But Hartenstein is right not to take a familiar play too seriously, and in every way her six well-cast and well-coached actors work overtime to make a classic unexpectedly hilarious.

Both stiff-upper-lip couples play their vapidities to the hilt. Cindy Tegtmeyer and Matt Yde wield deadly accurate accents as the fatuous and insipid Smiths, and add a dotty delivery worthy of the Monty Pythons. Julianna Hofeld and Tim Barker convulsed the crowd during the amnesiac Martins' "recognition" scene. As the editorializing maid, Susan V. Booth delivers her ode to fire with incendiary delight. Andrew Leman, in the funniest portrayal, rampages as the rubber-faced Fire Chief like an escapee from a Mack Sennett one-reeler.

Pig in a Poke's Bald Soprano is certainly no classroom reconstruction of a sacred cow; it won't scare folks away from seeing more Ionesco. This hour-long absurdist comedy may offer a bleak perspective on the fragility of language, but these failures to communicate also fuel some incongruously good-humored high jinks.

In my review of Cast on a Hot Tin Roof, I attributed the improvised role of Jeremiah Mae to Mary Collins; in fact she was played by Virginia Montgomery. My apologies to both actresses.

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