Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Bald Soprano
by Eugene Ionesco

Hampton High School / Theatre St. Thomas
September 24-25, 2004

It's hard to imagine that a play as unexpected and apparently revolutionary as The Bald Soprano must have seemed in 1950 could, in a mere half-century, have become a warhorse, a play that, when you see it listed, makes you think, ah, I wonder what this director and company's take on this will be?

It's happened, though. People who love theatre will usually have seen two or three productions, and know about others, and so in order to make that wonderfully off-the-wall dialogue snap and spark for both those old hands and for the folks who've never encountered it, you need not only to treat it as though it had never been performed before, but also to create a style or approach to the script that is striking and memorable.  Remarkably, Shane MacMillan has done just this with his students from Hampton High School, and the production that played in the Black Box under the auspices of Theatre St. Thomas was one of those theatrical moments that has the capability to clear your head out and focus your attention as though to a perfect piece of baroque chamber music.  In fact, it felt very much as though MacMillan and his student actors were performing music: this production wasn't so much about trying to make Ionesco's utterly flat characters into people, but rather merging them into a precisely calculated machine, operating on precise timing and almost mechanical uniformity . . . with a few original riffs thrown in like cadenzas in a bit of perfectly tuned Mozart.

The set and costumes, the appearance of the show generally, were part and parcel of this.  The elegance and simplicity of it -- the striking (and solid) red door set in the middle of the black box, with everything around it, including the character's costumes, black and white, with here and there a hint of red, told us from the opening that this was an authoritative production, as clean as a Mondrian painting.

It should not have been a surprise that MacMillan was able to create a tight, disciplined, and brilliantly timed performance, for that's exactly what he delivered last year, with the Hampton High production of Never Swim Alone -- but somehow I was surprised, even though two of the actors, Stephen Mercer (Mr. Smith ) and Caleb Cosman (Mr. Martin), were part of last year's remarkable experience, and reprised here their discipline -- and the occasional off-the-wall moment, as, for instance, Stephen Mercer's remarkable John-Cleese-like imitation of a bird.

Other members of the company maintained that same standard of discipline, clarity and timing; I was particuarly struck by Rebeka Cosman as the roller-skating servant who is the victim of the mechanically and impersonally vicious upper-middle-class snobbishness that Ionesco so deftly skewers with the conucopia of clichés he scatters through the production, but Sarah Barrett-Ives and Holly Jones were similarly clear and well timed.  I wasn't so sure about the Fire Chief, Mike Davis, whose lines tended to get clouded with a bit of humanity and individuality, but in general the six actors gave us a refreshing drink of cold, clear water . . . laced with just enough vodka to give the evening some jolt.

The arc of the single compelling act of The Bald Soprano is from perfunctory, meaningless chat and chatter, through increasingly uncomfortable chat and chatter, to utterly meaningless, desperate and hysterical chat and chatter, and the Hampton High company took us straight through it with hardly a false note. I'd thought I'd seen about as many productions of The Bald Soprano as I was eager to, but MacMillan and his actors surprised me.

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