After launching the first full season of programming with B Is for Beckett, a mélange of three iconic pieces by existential minimalist Samuel Beckett, Balagula Theatre continues its foray into the theater of the absurd with Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano.
Inspired by his struggles to learn English with the Assimil method, a British-centered method that dominated English language instruction during the mid-20th century, the Romanian playwright cleverly turned his frustrations and insights with the non-sequiturs of language and idiom into an artistic commentary on the disjointed nature of communication inherent in modern society.
At least, that's what it appears to me to be about. Witnessing absurdist theater is not a familiar experience for most theatergoers, and the absence or radical alteration of common conventions like plot and realistic character development leaves the experience more open to individual interpretation than most conventional shows.
Director Natasha Williams' take on The Bald Soprano comically revels in the extreme Britishness of the play's inspiration while carefully pacing the comedy's thematic devolution into nonsense. The ensemble cast — infused with the fresh blood of two promising actors new to the region — displays a tight sense of timing and deserves praise for thoughtfully drawn, if abstract, absurdist characters. The result is an offbeat, thought-provoking show that will elude and baffle some and entertain and challenge others.
Lynn Hungerford and Randy Hall open the production as Mrs. and Mr. Smith, a quintessentially British couple who with their guests, the Martins, engage in an evening of typical British socializing. Except that nothing about it is typical. The Smiths live a pedantic life dictated by tea times and clock dings and empty conversations void of connection and meaning. The Martins, too, are hyper-realized versions of empty-headed but well-meaning people whose words and deeds never quite match up. The Smiths and the Martins are versions of textbook families whom English-language students around the world once knew all too well, kind of like Dick and Jane.
Pete Sears and Vanessa Baker share particularly sparky chemistry as the Martins. Sears, who last appeared in B Is for Beckett's Endgame, shows an impressive emotional grasp of his characters' predicament, and recent Lexington transplant Baker's opening-night entrance onto the stage breathed new life into the show just as its momentum was starting to sag.
Later arrivals James Hamblin and Robbie Morgan further ramped up the escalating momentum that is a hallmark of the show. Hamblin mercifully relieves the show of its occasional pretense, infusing gobs of humor as the roving fire chief intent on putting out all fires in England, including those in the hearth. Morgan, a Lexington newcomer, makes mountains out of molehills in her small but spirited role as the maid.
By curtain, the show's playful but empty banter accelerates to a mishmash of rapid-fire, overlapping non-sequiturs that sound like a jumble of noises. The Martins take the place of the Smiths, the dialogue is reversed, and the play ends by looping back to the beginning, underscoring the cyclical nature of how we try, and often fail, to truly communicate.
The heavy artistic wallop that Balagula's more ambitious shows are sometimes known for is certainly present in The Bald Soprano, but in a colorful, textbook replica setting, complete with vocabulary labels and the pre-show sounds of the Beatles wafting through the café. And a creative and hilarious pre-recorded curtain speech lends a playful levity to the evening.