This weekend was truly a weekend for the absurd at Hopkins. While the opening nights of Witness Theater’s JHUconfessions were sold out and turning spectators away, the three performances of the JHU Barnstormers’s production of Eugène Ionesco’s first play, The Bald Soprano, solicited nonstop laughter from their more modest crowds.
The Bald Soprano, or in the original French, La cantatrice chauve, is one of the longest-running plays in French theater history, with its permanent production at the Théâtre de la Huchette playing regularly since 1957. Hopkins student director, junior Luke Mayhew, had some drastic changes to bring to this classic of the French absurdist theater.
First and foremost, he added a bathtub. Why? Not sure. But the actors likely were not too excited about this bold move when they found out that these three performances would entail sitting in a pool of cold, stagnant water. The audience members in the “splash zone” seemed to enjoy the show despite the added drainage danger, however.
First things first — the play itself has no plot. It isn’t supposed to have one — instead, it’s supposed to be circular, the whole play can repeat itself indefinitely at a moment’s notice, only changing the couple that starts the first scene.
The two groups of couples are quirky and incomprehensible. The dialogue is filled with non sequiturs and conversations that are trivial, contradictory or nonsensical. The lack of plot and confusing nature are indications that the play is absurdist — Ionesco aims to portray the uselessness of the human condition in all its poignancy. Conversation is meaningless — it’s as if the characters do not listen to one another. Novelty is nonexistent — every story they recount is either commonplace or trivial.
That said, the JHU Barnstormers did a decent job delivering. Sophomore Rachel Ayers was delightfully obnoxious as Mary the maid (unfortunately, she got very wet when they drowned her in the bathtub).
Freshman Jake Budenz alternated between an effeminate, fragile storyteller and an intimidating fire chief in a very over-the-top way. Senior Stephen Edwards and junior Emily Sucher played an intriguing Mr. and Mrs. Smith who, despite their lack of British accents, were very synchronized and quick with delivering their dialogue.
Finally, freshman Ben Ketter and sophomore Timari Yow certainly earned the audience’s confused stares while they washed their hands and pretended they had never met each other, despite being Mr. and Mrs. Martin, taking the same train, living in the same house, sharing the same bed, etc. Their slapstick comedy was well-timed as well, and often wet, which leads right back to the bathtub.
The choice of adding in the bathtub is astounding. While yes, in the theater of the absurd, the more absurd the better should hold, drenching the audience and cast members alike does not seem to fit thematically with the rest of the play.
And as interesting as it was to see the cast members standing around in the lobby after the show, dripping wet and wrapped in towels, it just seems as though such a bold move should be for a reason. The play is supposed to look typically British, according to Ionesco, and this representation makes Great Britain look like a mental hospital.
The useless dialogue is supposed to underline an existing problem of the human condition, the futility of conversation, and the banality of novelty, however the choice of the bathtub, as absurd as that sounds, changes everything. The characters look dysfunctional on the surface and not merely due to their dialogue. This plot looks isolated from the rest of the world — the play itself is absurd, but that absurdity does not carry over into the lives of the audience, who, one can only hope, do not partake in bathtub parties of this nature.
That being said, the play was enjoyable to watch, even for those in the front row (they were warned about being in a splash zone). Ionesco mixed with the Blue Man Group was actually quite hilarious, though the chalky face paint and black circles around the eyes that served as the make-up for all the actors had washed off almost completely by the end.
The snappy dialogue and the actors’ timing and hilarious movements seemed the essence of comedy to the audience. The absurd is often amusing nowadays, so even if the meaning might have been drained down the bathtub during the rehearsals, it was at least funny.
Senior Judy Penati, who did the costumes for this production, wrote in her bio that she “Would like to throw a BYOB party. A bring your own bathtub party that is.” Perhaps bathtub parties will be the new norm at Hopkins.
Or maybe this production will just be a unique and probably anomalous interpretation of a famous French play.