By Linda Smith
I was invited to peruse the set of the University of Dallas fall 2014 Mainstage production of “The Bald Soprano.” It is simplistic with a big surprise twist, leading me to believe that this will be a show all about the words. This seems to be how playwright Eugène Ionesco meant it to be. According to director and drama department chair Kyle Lemieux, the Romanian-French Ionesco was learning English via primers in his middle age. They contained such simple sentences as “See Jane run,” “The Smiths are learning to drive their car” and “Their car goes fast.” This language without substantial communication struck Ionesco, and he put many of those sentences to paper, thus beginning “The Bald Soprano.”
“It is an anti-play in that it is a play that has no plot, that has no characters such that someone does this to this person, and they feel sad and they do this as a response to that,” Lemieux said. “That doesn’t exist in this play, there’s no sort of Freudian inter-psychology, there’s no inner emotional life of the people or the characters. I think it’s even debatable if they are in fact characters in any traditional sense of how one understands a play. There is no action in the play, nothing happens in the play, although actually quite a lot happens, but the plot is very basic.”
Because of this lack of character development written in the script, cast and crew worked for a long time developing those characters themselves. The cast includes seniors Brian Ahern as Mr. Smith and Deborah Corpening as Mary the maid, juniors Maria Hotovy as Mrs. Martin and James McGregor as the fire chief, sophomore Zeina Masri as Mrs. Smith and freshman Noah Kersting as Mr. Martin.
“We had a couple rehearsals just dedicated to character work in the sense of ‘since the script gives us nothing, what do you think these people do in their personal moments?’” Corpening said. “I think that’s why so many people are able to take it to such extremes, is because we had the freedom to do so [sic]. The show is unlike any we’ve done at UD before. And it’s amazing, and it pushes boundaries in a beautiful way and toys with the audience.”
This leaves one to wonder if one can find meaning in the play, in the same way as one would in a Shakespeare play. Lemieux believes it is possible, especially given that the play is part of the repertoire of the Theater Literature II class taught at UD, which is where Lemieux was first introduced to it.
“On this campus, we love talking about ‘Meaning,’ capital M, right?” Lemieux said. “We’re really interested in what things mean and that seems awfully appropriate for an undergraduate academic institution. Well, that makes this play feel particularly useful for me as a contribution to the conversation on campus because this is a play that rejects meaning, that sort of defies meaning. And in many ways [Ionesco] kind of dares the audience to apply meaning to it, and he would instantly say ‘Well, you’re talking more about yourself than you are about this play,’ in a kind of really interesting and challenging way which I love.”
Hotovy says the meaning is something that is not embedded in the work, but that each person can find it on his own.
“This is a world where there’s no meaning, there’s no purpose,” Hotovy said. “These characters are striving for communication, not succeeding at anything and so I think you could take away that we don’t want this world without meaning, and you have to go find it for yourself.”
Masri took this point a step further, remarking that people are “completely inadequate” at expressing meaning with words.
“These scenes do mean something, from moment to moment,” Masri said. “That’s what we discovered, that there is a communication there. You can’t get that from the words. There is meaning, but we just can’t express it with language.”
McGregor says that the message of a lack of authentic communication runs deep in the play.
“I think there’s a commentary on communication as well and I think that’s something we touch on at the end in terms of modern-day, millennial communication,” McGregor said. “Think about how meaningless the majority of the conversations you have throughout the day are. I think that’s what the commentary is, is that here are these couples that are having their everyday conversations with their spouses but they’re not saying anything of value.”
What the play lacks in conventionality, it makes up for in creativity. Lemieux emphasizes the musicality in the translation, which costume designer Susan Cox described in the first read-through as sounding like a tango. It is also inherently hilarious, although according to Lemieux, Ionesco really did not intend for it to be funny.
“When he wrote the piece, the subtitle was ‘The Tragedy of Language,’ which I love as a subtitle,” Lemieux said. “He thought he wrote something very serious, and then when it was first performed in Paris in 1950, the audience laughed and it was a complete mystery to him as to why they were laughing because for him it was a tragedy, the way in which language has failed us as people. We can’t communicate, and then he discovered through the watching of it that it was actually quite funny so he changed it to ‘Anti-Play.’”
Actors say that this in-depth look at communication has affected their lives outside the show.
“The show has definitely changed the way I see interaction with everyday people, and that’s definitely what Ionesco is trying to get at, so I hope that people see that,” Kersting said.
Cast and crew say this show will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and something that should be seen and enjoyed at the university.
“Kyle said that this show is in many ways a celebration of theater,” Ahern said. “You wouldn’t be able to experience this piece in any other way than by coming to it and seeing it live. It’s an anti-play but in many ways it’s as much a play as anything could be.”
UD students are always very involved in Mainstage productions, but for “The Bald Soprano,” junior Cecilia Lang made the maid’s outfit completely from scratch, while junior Stephen Thie made her hat. Thie and fellow junior Ali Sentmanat made her apron. Senior Margaret Claahsen made Mrs. Smith’s apron.
“I can’t wait to share this piece with our enthusiastic audiences because they’re such great supporters of university theater,” Lemieux said. “But for them to be challenged by a piece that defies meaning and asks you to just enjoy the pleasures of watching something that is very funny and then the kind of subversive thing that lives under the comedy, some of his larger questions and some of his deeper, more probing questions that Ionesco is wrestling with, and asking of his audience I hope will linger. There’s going to be a real wide response to that, and I think Ionesco wanted that wide response.”
The show will run Nov. 5-15, with 8 p.m. performances every night except for the Sunday matinee. There will be no Monday night performance. November 7 will be faculty night and Nov. 8 will be alumni night. Tickets can be reserved at Haggar during the day or online at http://www.udallas.edu/constantin/programs/drama/upcomingproductions/.