Princeton’s drug culture is like a moon. Once a month it is full, lustrous and can be seen from all over campus. For some, this metaphorical moon is perpetually full and bright while for others the sky above is eternally dark. However, for the majority of Princetonians, this culture ebbs and flows like the moon waxes and wanes.
Surprisingly enough, this culture has infiltrated even that most chaste of institutions. No, not the Chapel Choir – they’ve been snorting since cocaine was isolated. Not the Organization of Women Leaders – though they really really want it. We’re talking the most pristine of all, the theater. This past weekend I was given a first-hand glimpse at just how tripped-out theater can be on campus, without even dropping a square! While watching Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Chairs, directed by Ben Mains ’06, I felt like I had discovered a completely different existence: vibrant new people, characters, and rules.
Coming in, I had no idea what to expect from the shows. From the teasers and signs around campus, I had this faint idea of “absurdist” buzzing through my head, but I wasn’t quite sure what it would entail. To me, “absurdist” meant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Waiting for Godot. My playwriting professor told me after my first stab at absurdity (which didn’t go too well) that “there has to be a logic to things—even in the most absurd of worlds. No matter what happens there still have to be certain rules, patterns and sense.” So, armed with this knowledge and ready to face Ionesco, I entered the Hamilton-Murray Theater.
The Chairs was the first of the two performances, and it got off to a good start by shifting the audience away from their normal viewpoint. Instead of watching from a darkened house, the audience viewed the show from a semi-lit stage set with folding chairs. The two characters, Old Man and Old Woman (Semiramis), were played by Scott Elmegreen ’07 and Nicole Greenbaum ’07, respectively. The plot is simple. Greenbaum and Elmegreen play an elderly couple that resides in a tower in the middle of a vast expanse of water. At the beginning of the play we learn that they have invited everyone in the world to listen to Old Man’s “message,” which is to be delivered by an Orator. The first chunk of the show deals with character exposition, while the second id occupied with the seating (with chairs) and entertaining of the guests (everyone in the world). The play winds down with the arrival of The Orator, played by a six-year-old named Gracie and the delivery of the message.
There wasn’t really much of a set: simply the Intime house with a stool and a podium. It has some of the trappings of a dull show, but Mains shows creativity by jolting the audience out of their norm and using chairs for the guests, as represented by pieces of cloth. The actual “guests”, though not physically present, were indicated by lights focused on the cloth. Indeed, one of the best moments of the play was at the end when a single light was left shining on Madam (the very first guest) and then slowly faded to black, leaving the glowing color imprinted on the air.
Both actors did an admirable job in tough roles. It’s hard enough to hold a conversation with a normal person but holding one with thin air must be next to impossible. Greenbaum is especially effective as the Old Woman. Her warmth and generosity shone through and added a pleasing depth to the show. Although there were a few instances where her character and her action become cloudy, those were few and far between, and on the whole her performance was very believable. Elmegreen did a formidable job as well, but I didn’t feel as drawn into his character. Whether this was caused by the script or a case of opening-night jitters, there was a bit more ambiguity with the Old Man than I felt there should have been. Another small issue I had with the acting was the pacing. Although absurdist playwrights are known for their snappy writing, The Chairs progressed a little too quickly.
However, when all was said and done, I was still very impressed with the entire thing. From the audacity to propose this play, to the creativity behind the staging to the sheer energy Greenbaum and Elmegreen brought to the house; indeed almost everything about this show made it a worthwhile production.
Next came The Bald Soprano. According to some old man in the audience, The Bald Soprano was Ionesco’s first stab at the Theater of the Absurd and was actually written as a joke. Trusting my fellow audience member, I’d say that Ionesco, with his first stab, got right to the heart of things (yes, I know, bad pun).
The Bald Soprano opens with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, played by Ted Hall ’05 and Liz Abernethy ’07, having a quiet conversation – or rather with Mrs. Smith is having a conversation with Mr. Smith’s newspaper. This is perhaps one of the best scenes of the show; the verbal comedy Abernethy plays with is hilarious (“It wasn’t as salty as you…”). Then Mary the Maid (Uma Tadepalli ’07) enters to break up the conversation. She announces that there are guests (complete strangers to one another), a man and a woman, played by Andy Hoover ’07 and Georgie Sherrington ’08. These two are left alone to discover through Socratic dialogue that, far from being complete strangers, they are actually Mr. and Mrs. Martin, a husband and wife who have a daughter. The Smiths reenter, miffed that they have guests. Minutes later, the Firechief (Chris Berg ’07) arrives, though not before a heated debate between the couples about the doorbell and the probability of a person being at the door. Berg stirs things up a bit and tells a story called The Head Cold, which ends up, of course, not being about a head cold at all. After an enlightening scene with Tadepalli about their love for one another, Berg takes his leave of the couples, who slowly begin to descend into madness.
The Bald Soprano’s set is quite striking. Set designer Scott Grzenzyck ’06 has done an amazing job with the Intime stage. Built on a rake, the set’s walls are lined with clocks each pointing to various times. There is a couch and two chairs along with a coffee table that has a trippy spiral design on the top. The ceiling lowers at the end and while this is a nice touch, I’m not really a fan. While it definitely adds to the madness of the final scene, it also distracts from what has the potential to be something very disturbing and strong. At times I became more focused on the lowering of the ceiling (nice job by Whitney Mosery ’08) than the actual acting.
I felt that the all the actors did a very good job with something that it is quite difficult. Abernethy and Hall were very convincing as a proper English couple, though the rancor between the two was sometimes a little jarring. Hoover and Sherrington were also quite effective. Sherrington’s little wifely touches when Hoover would be tapping his fingers or foot made their relationship very believable and real. Berg was great as the Firechief. However, it was Tadepalli who stole the show as Mary the Maid. Her spot-on accent was hilarious and she delivered her lines with sincerity and vigor. The entire cast worked well off each other and rather than simply going through the motions reacted and played with each other in a way that is hard to find in many productions. It was obvious that they were not only well-rehearsed but that they connected with each other as well.
There were a few issues I had with The Bald Soprano. The first was the story of The Head Cold. From beginning to end the idea behind it was unclear and confusing, even for Ionesco. Not only did it go too quickly to catch on to, but the punchline wasn’t as sharp as it could have been. Its clever message was lost on me and all I was left with was a sense of bewilderment and a bunch of illegible scrawls. There was also the problem of the ending. The Bald Soprano’s entire plotline seems to be one extended descent into absurdity and madness. What starts out slow gradually picks up speed and culminates with a graceful swan dive into complete and utter insanity. I’m not quite sure what the insanity at the end is supposed to mean, if it was supposed to mean anything. Essentially, by the end of the show, I thought the screaming and all-consuming craziness had gotten a little too gratuitous.
All things considered, both shows far outshone my expectations. Although not normally a huge fan of the absurd, Mains’s interpretation of Ionesco made it familiar and engaging in a way I had not really thought possible. The Chairs was an interesting departure from the norm while the Bald Soprano’s set was really a work of art and the players in both were involved, sincere, and excellent. So if you really need to trip and your dealer is wigging out on you, go see The Bald Soprano and The Chairs, and watch your moon rise gloriously.
The Bald Soprano and The Chairs will be playing April 14th-16th at 8 pm with a matinee on the 16th at 2 pm. Tickets are $12 general admission, $10 if you’re old or a teacher or something else and $6 for students. You can get them at Frist or 45 minutes before the show starts at Intime. Limited seating.