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.

Photo by Théo Belnou

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.

Photo by Théo Belnou

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.

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