Arts and Humanities
4:08 pm
Mon August 26, 2013

A Continuous Loop: Absurdist Comedy 'The Bald Soprano' Runs Back-to-Back

Brian Hinds and Victoria Reibel in Savage Rose Classical Theatre's production of Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano."
Credit Savage Rose Classical Theatre

When Tad Chitwood decided to direct a production of "The Bald Soprano," Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist satire of middle-class manners, he found the most common English translation from French a bit timid – not to mention out-dated, with its jokes about 1950’s British bourgeoisie.

“That doesn’t really resonate with American audiences," says Chitwood. "He was poking fun at clichés that don’t really exist anymore. Not only do they not exist, they tend to be British and French clichés of the mid-twentieth century. You’d read it and think okay, I guess that was funny once. So it had to be adapted, not just translated.”

Chitwood got to work on a new translation with an updated American sensibility. The show is produced by Savage Rose Classical Theatre, and it opens Friday at The Bard's Town.

Ionesco wrote his first pass of the short play in his native Romanian, then translated it into French, his language of choice for theatre. Chitwood's challenge: to retain the off-kilter sensibility of the original French translation while adapting the jokes for a contemporary American audience, who might not find (for example) a gag about chamber pots quite as funny as the original audience would.

"The challenges were huge. What I tried to do was put into 21st century English the sense of what the French was saying, which was kind of arcane," he says. 

Oh, and there's Ionesco's staunch absurdist anti-narrative stance to contend with – so don't ask what the play is about if you don't want a deliberate thematically-ambiguous answer. One couple, the Smiths, are visited by another couple, the Martins. The maid and the fire chief join them. Meaningless situations abound and repeat; non-sequiturs fly.

Cast member Brian Hinds, who plays the Fire Chief, told Chitwood the play reminds him of  comedian Louis C.K.'s TV show "Louie" – full of absurd surprises and defied expectations.

“It’s surprising in that way," says Chitwood. "All of the sudden, things happen. There may be a deeper logic underneath, but things happen, and somehow, we don’t quite know how, they’re funny."

The show runs Friday and Saturday at The Bard’s Town, with four performances of the play (run-time about an hour) each night. The first curtain is at 6 p.m. and the last show begins at midnight.

This marathon-style run is a first for the classical theatre company. Chitwood borrowed the idea from Philadelphia's Brat Productions, which debuted their "The 24-hour Bald Soprano" at the New York Fringe Festival in 1998. It's been popular enough to enjoy several revivals in Philadelphia.

"This is uncharted territory. I’ve never done anything like this. That’s part of what’s so exciting about it. I think it will add to the energy and to the nature of the play itself," says Chitwood.

Indeed, "The Bald Soprano" is a show that lends itself to marathon productions. A Paris production at the breadbox-sized Théâtre de la Huchette has run continuously since 1957, and the play remains one of the most oft-produced in France. And Ionesco designed the play to run on a continuous loop, too. Stage directions call for the play to end like this: the lights go down on chaos. When they come back up, the characters have switched sides: the Martins are now seated where the Smiths were at the top of the show, and the lights go down on the production as the Martins exchange the Smiths' lines from the top of the show. It's an artfully futile move appropriate for a play informed by, as Chitwood says, the bleak existentialism of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. 

That's not new territory for Savage Rose, though. The company's roots are in classical theatre, like infrequently-produced Jacobean dramas, but their repertoire extends up to the mid-twentieth century masters. Their production of Luigi Pirandello's off-kilter, oddly poetic one-act "The Man With the Flower in His Mouth" was a stand-out in last fall's Slant Culture Theatre Festival. Shaking up the idea of what "classical theatre" can be is one of the company's goals — bringing plays many patrons have only seen or read in college to life in a fun way. 

"I suppose it would be easy to fall into a pattern of 'stodgy' but that’s antithetical to what Savage Rose is about," says Chitwood. "You don’t want to get into a predictability of [feeling like you should] go to the theater out of a sense of painful duty. It’s never been anything like that. It’s 'go to the theater out of a sense of excitement'.'