Two by Ionesco Review - Theatre of the Absurd Classics

To commemorate its 57th anniversary, the Santa Monica Playhouse brings back the double-bill with which the theatre opened its doors in 1978 – Ionesco’s THE BALD SOPRANO and THE LESSON. And in both English and French, to boot! Imagine the excitement in 1978 when playwright Eugene Ionesco himself paid the theater a visit, remarking “Magnificent! Your fidelity to my original intent is incredible!” Even after he returned to Paris, Ionesco wired the team at the Santa Monica Playhouse: “An excellent presentation!”

Eugene Ionesco visits the Playhouse - Photo by Emery Bernauer

The double bill of two one-act plays is being presented in the Santa Monica Playhouse’s newly refurbished Artists’ Entrance Studio Upstairs, an intimate space seating approximately 20 patrons. If there were ever two plays which cry out for an intimate production, these two qualify in spades.

Written by a man deemed a master in the “Theatre of the Absurd, “ Eugene Ionesco began writing in middle age, with his first play, THE BALD SOPRANO, making its debut in 1950 on Paris’ left bank – reportedly with three people in attendance under a leaky roof. THE LESSON premiered in 1951 to scarcely better patronage. But mighty oaks from acorns grow, and Ionesco was no exception. By the 1960’s his plays were beginning to get noticed – so much so, in fact, that THE BALD SOPRANO was being touted as a modern classic. Besides, THE BALD SOPRANO (which got its name from an actor who flubbed his lines during its first reading), holds the world record for a play which has been staged continuously in the same theater for the longest time. In fact, it has become one of the most performed plays in France.

Evelyn Rudie, Elodie Cammarata, and Chris DeCarlo in "The Bald Soprano" - Photo by Serena Dolinsky

When asked about his goals for THE BALD SOPRANO and THE LESSON, Ionesco stated that their purpose was to create “pure drama” that was “anti-thematic, anti-ideological, anti-social-realist, anti-philosophical, anti-boulevard psychology, and anti-bourgeois.” Some critics have even called his plays “anti-plays.”

Elodie Cammarata and Tavis L. Baker (Front Row) and Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo (Back Row) - Photo by Serena Dolinsky

THE BALD SOPRANO is a study in order descending into chaos as language loses its communication function. The play focuses on a meeting by two typically and stereotypically English couples - Mr. Smith (Chris DeCarlo) and Mrs. Smith (Evelyn Rudie) who host another English couple, Mr. Martin (Brad Griffith) and Mrs. Martin (Nicola Bertram) in their home. Each couple is a clone of the other, neither with a scintilla of individuality and both go on and on in banalities and meaningless chatter. The liveliest in the crowd seems to be the Smith’s maid Marie (Elodie Cammarata), a rather blatantly sexual presence. And let’s not forget the Fire Chief (Tavis L. Baker) who keeps hoping for a fire to put out.

Nicola Bertram and Brad Griffith - Photo by Serena Dolinsky

THE LESSON tells the tale of the Professor (Chris DeCarlo) who tutors young ladies like his current pupil (Serena Dolinsky). As his dour housekeeper (Evelyn Rudie) tries to keep him calm, the Professor begins to show signs of increasing frustration and anger. The situation keeps escalating to its shocking conclusion. Again, language becomes meaningless; and communication continues to break down into increasingly inane phrases and nonsensical clichés. And, of course, the situation grows in absurdity.

Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie in "The Lesson" from 1971 - Photo by Emery Bernauer

The talented cast does an excellent job of portraying Ionesco’s thoughts. This is comedy – but frozen in ice – as the cast blandly go about their mechanical (and oddly non-human) functions. Both plays poke fun at just about everything and everybody. Nothing is sacred. Chris DeCarlo has expertly helmed this production with finesse and exquisite subtlety. James Cooper’s lighting and set design are just about perfect, and Ashley Hayes’ costumes put the finishing touch on a production that is eerily faithful to the original. Audience alert: It helps if you’re a fan of Theatre of the Absurd.

THE BALD SOPRANO and THE LESSON run through August 26, 2017, with English language performances on Fridays (July 28, August 11 and 25) and Saturdays (August 5 and 19). French language performances are on Fridays (August 4 and 18) and Saturdays (July 29, August 12 and 26). The Santa Monica Playhouse is located at 1211 Fourth Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Tickets are $30 with discounts for students, teachers, seniors, and military.  For information and reservations, call 310-394-9779 or go online.   

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