Theatre Review – Théâtre français de Toronto/La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano) by Eugène Ionesco

Photo by Théo Belnou

TfT’s production of this 1950 French classic is simply brilliant. Director Chanda Gibson and her fine cast have mounted this Theatre of the Absurd icon with such verve and vitality that it speaks for the ages.

We know we are going to laugh because Ionesco holds no surprises for us. We understand Ionesco. We understand Theatre of the Absurd. We know the play. We have a sophistication about the arts. In other words, what we are interested in is how does director Gibson bring a freshness to the seventy-year-old script. It is like going to see each revival of Hamlet at Stratford to experience what the new director extracts from Shakespeare. And what Gibson has given us is an “anti-play” whose “tragedy of language”, as Ionesco refers to his work, sparkles with such a sly wit that the playwright could not have imagined. In fact, Ionesco declared loud and long that The Bald Soprano was not a parody but a pure abstract. But then Ionesco could not have conjured up Donald Trump and all the other craziness in today’s world. We are long past the 1950s.

For background, Ionesco’s initial inspiration was a phrase book called English Made Easy, which featured simple sentences to help build vocabulary. Taken out of context, these phrases can sound ridiculous, and using that premise, Ionesco created dialogue filled with contradictions, non-sequiturs, banalities, platitudes and meaningless ramblings. He was pillaring the comfortable bourgeoisie and conformity where small talk obscures truth, and polite society contributes to the breakdown of communication. At least in Ionesco’s world, people still acknowledge each other, even if they don’t make sense when they talk to each other. What would the playwright have made of emails, and text messages, and shorthand language like “u r”, and, of course, emojis? Talk about futility.

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Clearly, Gibson spent a long time in how the words are said. Her production shines with loaded delivery. Imagine Mrs. Smith getting a laugh when she simply says the name “Smith”, but she earned a huge chuckle because she conveyed such anguish over its very commonness. In fact, I heard double entendres and subtext I’d never heard before, because Gibson is playing to a modern audience who is listening with new ears. She has also highlighted class prejudice, which Ionesco included among his inanities, but not to the same degree. In other words, this production is layered with all kinds of clever language play.

Ionesco’s structure builds from desultory (if pointless) conversation, to telling bizarre stories, to reciting truisms, both real (Charity begins at home) and idiotic (I’d rather kill a rabbit than sing in the garden), to a final few minutes of sheer mayhem where the characters become wild children who are reduced to forcing out bare syllables, having lost words altogether. Gibson’s build is so astute that when chaos descends, it seems absolutely natural and expected. On the other hand, Gibson has not tarted up the play to be pure farce. Everyone plays for real, which is as it should be.

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It also helps that she introduces real tension and anxiety, not to mention overt sexuality. For example, Mrs. Smith flirts, albeit subtlety, with both Mr. Martin and the Fire Chief in Ionesco’s text, but Gibson has Mrs. Smith shivering with delight and desire when the Chief runs his hands over her body. Nothing is hidden. Everything is out in the open. There is also real hostility, particularly between the Smiths. The silly conversations can’t cover up dysfunction. Gibson’s staging is also excellent. Rather than have the Smiths and Martins go completely offstage on their cue, she has each couple sitting on separate chairs at the back, stiff as statues, while the other couple converses stage front. Just their being silent witnesses adds a darker texture to the ethos of the play. The Bald Soprano is really a tragedy of the human condition.

Casting Mary, the Smith’s maid, as a real soprano is a great coup de théâtre. She sings most of her lines, which is hilarious, given the title. She is clearly not the bald soprano. I do like the addition of a giant gong, which Mary bangs at perfect, if absurd, moments. Ditto to the metronome whose relentless beat underscores the tension. And as an example of Gibson’s coy directing – Mary announces she’s the maid by slipping on an oversized maid’s cap while not wearing a maid’s uniform. I’m not sure why Gibson has Mr. Smith sport a leg cast and limp around, but the actor has great fun throwing it about during the pandemonium that is the penultimate episode of the play.

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Gibson is helped immeasurably by Alexandra Lord’s gorgeous set. Ionesco, in his stage directions, mandates a middle-class English home, with English furniture etc., and Lord has provided a de rigueur tasteful room, maybe even too tasteful, but it suits today’s aesthetic. Yvan Castonguay’s inspired costumes are cleverly character-specific, for example, Mrs. Smith in her too-tight dress, and Mrs. Martin in her too-young one. Glenn Davidson has bathed Lord’s set in the attractive light it deserves, while sound designer Ben Gibson has had great fun with all the various clock chimes.

And let us not forget the uniformly terrific cast who breathe such wonderful life into Ionesco’s usually cypher characters. He would be very surprised, I think, to discover they have personalities, albeit, shallow and one-dimensional. The very talented actors are Geneviève Langois and Manuel Verreydt  (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), Sophie Goulet and Pierre Simpson (Mr. and Mrs. Martin), Sébastien Bertrand (Fire Chief), and Christina Tannous (Mary). Kudos to all.

It is so satisfying when a classic play is given new life. This wonderful production deserves a longer run.

Photo by Théo Belnou

Théâtre français de Toronto, La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano) by Eugène Ionesco (with surtitles), directed by Chanda Gibson, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Oct. 23 to Nov. 3, 2019.

Theatre Review – Two Rooms (Théâtre Français de Toronto) and This is War (Tarragon)

It just so happens that I saw two plays in a row that use the structural device of monologues, so they make an interesting joint review.

Two Rooms by Mansel Robinson, (in a French translation by acclaimed Quebecois playwright Jean Marc Dalpé), focuses on the murder of a Moslem wife by her “white” cop (read Canadian) husband. By extension, it is also about the great racial/religious divide. Hannah Moscovitch writes political theatre. Her This Is War is a close look at the stresses placed on Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly the night before a joint operation with the Afghan army that goes sour.

Now these synopses are woefully inadequate in terms of content, but my main concern is the use of monologues. In Two Rooms, the two-hander is made up of monologues by the wife (Elkahna Talbi) and the husband (Dalpé), although they do intersect briefly. Moscovitch cuts to scenes after her four soldiers (Lisa Berry, Sergio Di Zio, Ian Lake and John Cleland) have spoken.

The two plays share another element – the audience knows the ending from the onset, but not the why and the wherefore. Thus, a good playwright has the knack of revealing facts through conversation. A weak playwright tells us everything up front and nothing is discovered, as it were. Clearly, the audience has expectations. Why did the Moslem wife have to die? What happened at the joint operation and the night before? What the playwrights are hoping for is that their revelations are of sufficient interest to keep the audience’s attention – and, more to the point, that the subsequent unfolding of events is equal to the outcome that the audience knows in advance – and in this, they both succeed. Robinson and Moscovitch are able to build the case for their endings (beginnings). In neither play is the audience left thinking that the end was less than the means.

Then there are the unseen listeners/askers of questions. The monologues in these plays are not mere self-ruminations. For example, in Two Rooms, we know right from the start that the policeman is in a police interrogation room. We also find out early on that the wife has had an affair. She is presumably at a psychiatrist’s office, using her storytelling to build up courage to confront her husband with the truth about her relationship. In This Is War, it is probably a reporter, or perhaps a member of an inquiry board who is the listener. We know that there has been a traumatic joint op experience with the Afghan army. The questions the soldiers are asked also deal with what happened the night before. In this way, the playwrights reel in the audience, playing the line a bit at a time, tickling the fish. We become those unseen questioners with, in the case of an accomplished playwright, a strong need to know.

Robinson is very clever. As the policeman details his rising paranoia that his wife is a terrorist, she grows in strength as she marches her way to the truth. Moscovitch, at first, has her soldiers lie, or withhold information, but she also uses the device of repeated scenes. Each time we see the repeat, she includes more information. Bits of monologues also repeat. By the end we are left with the clear knowledge of the terrible stress syndrome that motivated the soldiers in their actions during that fateful and disastrous joint operation. Along the way, Moscovitch also slips in details about what life is like for a soldier in these dismal desert encampments.

Dalpé and Talbi give wonderfully nuanced performances. His character has been blessed with delicious lines of dark, ironic humour, in comparison to his wife’s intense, humourless self-evaluation. It’s a good contrast. Moscovitch’s play is fraught with tension. There is the hardened, womanizing sergeant (Cleland), the idealistic young recruit (Lake), and the troubled female corporal (Berry) who is the object of their desire. (This play could be a good case for why women shouldn’t be serving in the front line!) Di Zio is the gay medic who tries to keep the esprit de corps together. They are all coiled springs and the angst is palpable.

A special commendation should be made for Cleland. He was replacing the injured Ari Cohen, but he was so into character that one forgot that he was on script. Kudos to directors Geneviève Pineault (Two Rooms) and Richard Rose (This Is War) for crafting productions that highlight both words and character. Norman Thériault’s evocative set for Two Rooms is a cage, a suitable metaphor for the play, When it comes to Dora Award time, Camellia Koo deserves a nomination for her sensational design for This Is War that literally cocoons the audience in camouflage netting.

In the final analysis, monologues have been around since Greek theatre, and certainly brought to brilliance in Shakespeare. In the capable hands of playwrights assured of their craft, they remain a tried and true literary device.

Two Rooms by Mansel Robinson, translated by Jean Marc Dalpé, (staring Elkahna Talbi and Dalpé, directed by Geneviève Pineault), Théâtre Français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Jan. 30 to Feb. 3, 2013

This Is War by Hannah Moscovitch, (starring Lisa Berry, John Cleland, Sergio Di Zio and Ian Lake, directed by Richard Rose), Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Dec. 28 to Feb. 3, 2013