Zany ‘Soprano’ is true to Ionesco’s vision

THEATER REVIEW | Cast is perfect human furniture to keep ’50s absurdist play from appearing dusty
May 22, 2007
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic

A certain madness, mischief and mayhem are afoot from the moment you step into the Building Stage, where director Sean Graney and his company, the Hypocrites, are staging an eye-opening revival of Eugene Ionesco’s 1956 absurdist classic “The Bald Soprano.”

Pass through a black curtain and, guided by a parade of plastic footlights, you immediately meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their lively, impudent maid. Mrs. Smith (the altogether sublime Mechelle Moe) is nervously keeping up appearances. Mr. Smith (a deftly rambunctious Kurt Ehrmann) is piggishly chomping on corn on the cob, periodically spitting out the offending kernels, much to the disgust of the couple’s Maid (Jennifer Santanello, an actress full of wonderful surprises, with a bit of Carol Burnett in her). The Maid also might remark on your choice of a seat.

Proceed to look around and you will see you have entered a black-and-white world just the other side of wild and zany. A whimsical bookcase stacked with color-coded volumes towers over the other side. A giant clock dominates one side of the room and will keep a strange sort of time during the next 90 minutes as the Smiths are joined by their very tardy dinner guests Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Steve Wilson and Samantha Gleisten) and by a clownish, exceedingly randy Fire Chief (Ryan Bollettino). Four chairs patterned to match this nut house are the only other furniture needed.

As it happens, the most crucial pieces of furniture in this play are the humans — forever in a kind of fevered repositioning of thought and language, of expected behavior and explosive desires. Ionesco was interested in the craziness to be found in the human showroom. You could even think of his plays as a postwar European intellectual’s precursor of “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Frankly, Ionesco’s work doesn’t always connect with contemporary audiences. But in Graney and his actors, he has found ideal interpreters. They understand precisely how to be true to his vision, in which bizarre behavior barely masks a profound sense of panic and desperation. And it’s not just the way they’ve updated the script with the lightest dusting of timely references to pop music and other markers. It has much more to do with Graney’s very special kind of imagination (he first staged this play 10 years ago when the Hypocrites first arrived on the scene), and with his flair for dizzying language and buried emotion. All of the play’s verbal jousts, sexual clowning and complex musical beats are realized with clockwork perfection. But an essential humanity always prevails.

Each of the actors is ideal in his or her way here. But it is Moe, whose delicate features belie a rowdy interior, who is the knockout. Courtney O’Neill’s inspired set (lit by Jared Moore), along with Michael Griggs’ bravura sound and Graney’s ingenious costumes, all perfectly complement Ionesco.

Note: The 2007-08 season for the Hypocrites, to be staged in the Chopin Theatre Basement Studio, 1543 W. Division, will encompass Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” (directed by Geoff Button), August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” (Graney directing) and “Our Town” (directed by David Cromer). Classics all, destined to be reborn.