By Margaret Darby
If you attend the performance of IRC’s Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco, be sure to arrive early. The uniformed bellhop will throw open the door of a private gallery of art collected by Victor Keen. Mr. Keen and his wife bought the building thinking that their dance studio next door, Performance Garage, might one day need to expand. When they realized it would not be feasible, they decided to move Mr. Keen’s art into the space. They invited the IRC to install a staid and sturdy proper English living room (beautifully done by Erica Hoelscher) in a corner of the upstairs gallery. The audience sat on chairs of sundry styles and shapes, which were reminiscent of another Ionesco play the IRC produced with aplomb in 2016, The Chairs.
Because of the venue, the cast had a great deal to contend with for the show, but when Tina Brock puts on a show, she makes it work. Many of the actors and crew had to enter between my chair and that of my neighbor and shoulder their way on stage through a nonexistent aisle, but no one was late for an entrance. It was also difficult to get the very sociable audience to sit down and be quiet for the play, but that worked eventually, too.
The concept of the Bald Soprano has evolved since its first performance on May 11, 1950. It was Ionesco’s first play and he wrote it when he was well into his forties. He had decided to learn English and bought a primer from which he faithfully copied the phrases. Some of them had Mrs. Smith telling Mr. Smith about their children, their diet, and their fine English customs and habits. Ionesco found that preposterous, but instead of slamming the primer shut, he became mesmerized and decided to write a play showing how absurd a flat and monotonous presentation of a culture and language can be.
In the early days, the play was performed straight, quietly, with the characters close together on the stage. The nonsensical platitudes were delivered in flat English style, even when performed in the original French, becoming unhinged only at the end of the play. Tina Brock directed her play in a more modern style, planting her characters far apart from each other and getting them to move, pace while talking, raise their voices and even shout. The volume served to make the actors heard in the large space, but with the high reverb of the gallery, some of the lines should have been delivered a tad more slowly or at least separated by brief pauses to avoid the clash between the echo of the last phrase with the beginning of the next one.
Brock plays a babbling, nonsensical Mrs. Smith, extolling the virtues of Englishness and life in the suburbs to her husband (Bob Schmidt) as if she had just met him. By the time we meet Mr. and Mrs. Martin, their tardy guests, Mr. Smith is yelling at them in a very un-English manner. John Zak puts the most English flavor into his Mr. Martin, who, left in the living room with Mrs. Martin (Sonja Hobson), comically tries to figure out where he had met her. She coyly starts to recognize him, and then does not, giving him even more opportunity to push the stolid aloofness of his character.
The two minor characters in Ionesco’s play were a breath of fresh air. Mary (Tomas Dura) was a maid whose straight-laced analysis of the characters delivered directly to the audience was superbly dry and droll. The Fire Chief (Arlen Hancock) delivered his ridiculous tales, especially “the cold” with speed and fluidity, not easy with the wild stream of nonsense Mr. Ionesco so skillfully wrote, but his pacing and turning while giving his lines made them hard to follow, which was too bad because it is so funny.
The play did not suffer in the least from ending without the traditional repetition of the beginning with Mr. and Mrs. Martin. The major weakness of the performance was that the cast worked up to a hysterical pace and volume too soon. The hysteria should only come at the end of the play, after, in Ionesco’s own words, “the clichés and truisms of the conversation primer…disintegrated into wild caricature and parody, and, in the end…, language disintegrated into disjointed fragments of words.” (From Notes and Counter-Notes)
If You Go: Sept. 5 -9, 12-16, and 19-23 at 7:30 pm, Sept. 10, 17 and 24 at 2:30 pm. Bethany Mission Gallery, 1527 Brandywine St. Tickets cost $15-$25. Tickets and more information are available online http://fringearts.com/event/eugene-ionescos-bald-soprano/.