Getting Absurd

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey meets ‘The Bald Soprano.’

By: Stuart Duncan

Mary Bacon, Walker Jones and Kelly McAndrew star in The Shakespeare Theatre

of New Jersey’s production of The Bald Soprano.

   Let’s start off by suggesting that The Shakespeare Theatre in Madison may just be the most courageous regional theater in the country. A few years back it scheduled Shakespeare’s King John, which everyone knows is the Bard’s worst, quite possibly unproduceable, work. Well, in the hands of Paul Mullins and a wonderful cast, it became a minor masterpiece.
   Just this season, the company already has given us Ferenc Molnar’s seldom-staged The Play’s The Thing to huge laughs, and audiences were stunned by its charm. This season has also seen a resounding production of the enigmatic Measure For Measure as well as an outdoor romp, the sold out, held-over version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that rivaled Peter Brook’s celebrated 1963 version.
   And now the company brings us The Bald Soprano, Eugène Ionesco’s 1950 work that ushered in the "theater of the absurd" and led the way for Satre and Samuel Beckett. Ionesco would follow up with The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952) and his best-known play, Rhinoceros in 1959. At Madison, director Matthew Arbour is at the helm of a superb cast of six and The Bald Soprano gets a definitive staging that may not please, but should satisfy.
   There are some background facts you should know: It was the first play written by Ionesco, who up to that time had earned a meager living as a translator and proofreader. He was 41 when the play was published. It came about as a direct result of his having attempted to learn English from primers provided to him at the time. Some have said the play is about "the constant struggle to make sense of what is going on into the present." That, of course, is absurd.
   Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said it better: "When ideas fail, words come in very handy."
   If you think of a play in linear terms, The Bald Soprano will leave you seething. But, OK, here is kind of what happens: A typically English couple, the Smiths (Matthew Floyd Miller in what may just be the stuffiest stuffed shirt in years) and Kelly McAndrew (who may just have the finest pasted smile in those same years) are sitting in a typically English drawing room, having just enjoyed a typically English dinner. The clock strikes 19. "Oh, it’s nine o’clock" gushes Mrs. Smith and we are off. The blond maid (Angela Pierce) announces that the Martins have arrived for their dinner date, only slightly absurd since we have just been told what a delicious dinner the Smiths have just enjoyed.
   The Martins are left to get acquainted while the Smiths dress for dinner. This takes a bit of doing (as Mr. Martin, Greg Jackson has perhaps the broadest array of perplexed looks seen in years; Mary Bacon’s Mrs. Martin has the brightest chirpy-bird patter) since the pair don’t seem to realize that they indeed are married and have been for years. And finally, a true stranger arrives — the fire chief in desperate need of a fire to extinguish, but perfectly willing to play word games while he waits. The role is played with great understatement by Walker Jones.
   It obviously is not everybody’s cup of tea, but it runs only 70 minutes, is very funny at times, disturbing at other moments and frighteningly incisive in the bargain. You are not likely to find a better cast, and director Arbour has given them the time to make brilliant choices. The theater, incidentally, hosts a talk-back with members of the company after each performance.
The Bald Soprano continues at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, through Aug. 26. Performances: Tues. 7:30 p.m., Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2, 8 p.m., Sun. 2, 7 p.m. Tickets cost $28-$52; (973) 408-5600;