Friday, July 30, 2010

TITO's 'Soprano' hits the high notes

Everything seems just hunky-dory, but, almost from the beginning of "The Bald Soprano," you know something is off, and if you say "off what" you are on track, in the zone, whatever that means, in this completely over-the-top absurd Ionesco classic being staged by Theater in the Open. We find the Smiths, a proper English family, which is to say circumspect and bloodless and deceptively matter-of-fact, in their living room, in an unnamed suburb of London, discussing the mundane details of their day-to-day, like the quality of the oil, both cooking and salad, which, the missus says, is delightfully not rancid, as is sometimes the case. They talk about superficially interesting, ultimately distracting facts gleaned through the course of a life well avoided, like the restorative qualities of good-quality yogurt. They talk about the interesting news of the day, like the death of family friend Bobby Watson, not to be confused with his wife, who has the same name, or his son and daughter, who also have the same name, and a chap who actually seems to have died several years before, the mister just failing to bring it up until now. And, speaking of death, they talk about those other irritating facts of life, like how the papers always seem to list the age of people who die, but never of those who are born.
The Smiths are waiting for another couple to arrive. They are late, the Martins, so late that the Smiths have all but given up on them, if they remembered the get-together at all, retiring upstairs for a bit of what passes for sex in upper-crusty British homes, probably the so-called English disease, spanking. Another strange couple, the Martins. They appear to playing some sort of flirty role-playing game with each other. They live in the same city, in the same house, and each has a daughter with the same name and, thus, they appear to be married, but are not. You almost expect the penguin on the top of the telly to explode — Python being the only convincing pop culture comparison.

The play, first performed in 1950, when the Romanian writer was knee-deep in the stilted dialogs of English grammars, at a time when he had all but given up on theater and which, as you might have suspected, has nothing to do with follically challenged singers — the name being a non-sequitur unleashed in the final riotous act — is like the oddballs who inhabit it: It seems normal enough, with a beginning, middle and end, with characters repeating dialogue in clearly defined sections of a whole, a commonality of form, if nothing else. But in the dialog, such is it is, the words hang in the air, signifying nothing, leaving the audience to chase meaning, of which there is none. Despite a wealth of language, there is a poverty of understanding. Words have lost their ability to convey meaning, a linguistic disconnect that prevents the characters, that prevents us, from connecting in any meaningful way.

The weirdness spirals out of control, especially after the Fire Chief shows up, setting off a vigorous investigation into the causal relationship between a doorbell ringing and the appearance of people on the other side of the door (sadly unresolved). We move past issues of incontinence, and long, pointless stories of ordinary travails, to the mad, linguistic choreography of the final scene, a battle of Babel, an impossible tangle of language, generating heat but no light — and uproarious laughter. With no resolution, of course, because there was no conflict besides the obvious one, the struggle for meaning, which can never be resolved.

This is familiar landscape for director Stephen Haley, an adjunct professor of psychology at Wentworth Institute and the go-to guy for absurdist kingpin Samuel Beckett, almost singlehandedly keeping the Nobel Prize-winner in front of local audiences, including this spring's production of "Waiting for Godot." The current production is crisp and taut, coming in at just over an hour,  just enough to keep your head from exploding. Edward Speck and Zoe Foster are delightfully daft as the Smiths. Damon Jespersen brings a kind of what-what earnest, blank simplicity to the Fire Chief. The entire cast — Sean Senior and Michelle Chabot as the Martins, and Cailin McFarland as the Maid — does a wonderful job with what has to be the trickiest of roles: thinly drawn characters bouncing around in a story without story, convincingly selling lines that just don't connect in any traditional way.

If you crave linear stories and objective meaning, it's probably best to stay at home. Trick is just not to overthink it. Let the language, the absurdity, wash over you. Let it go. Laugh. There's nothing else you can do, and no reason to do otherwise.

Theater in the Open's production of Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" runs at 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 8 at Maudslay State Park. The show is directed by Stephen Haley and features performances by Edward Speck, Zoe Foster, Cailin McFarland, Sean Senior, Michelle Chabot and Damon Jespersen. Tickets are $8, $5 for students and seniors. There is a $2 charge to park. Allow 15 minutes to reach the play site. Follow the flags to the performance site. For more information, call 978.465.2572, or click here.

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