Expanded Arts has brought Off-Off-Broadway a steady stream of new productions of works by Shakespeare, Brecht, Genet, Strindberg, Pinter, and Mamet. Their dedication to classic and great contemporary plays is in the
very best Off-Off-Broadway tradition. The production style is intimate, depending on acting rather than production values to carry a play's weight. The opportunity to regularly play roles in such wonderful plays has drawn exceptional actors to Expanded Arts' resident company.
The plot of Expanded Arts' latest production, Ionesco's absurdist farce The Bald Soprano, is simple: the Martins visit the Smythes. The fun is in hearing how language straightjackets the characters so that what they say runs counter to sense. (Imagine an existential Monty Python episode to get the idea.) Ionesco's play is a nonstop barrage of gags, puns, and non sequiturs.
Though the production was entertaining and energetic, something was missing. In French, the characters speak with a rigid formality that sounds like it should make sense but does not. The new translation by Laurent Girard has a more informal idiom, which changes the characters from conventional bourgeoisie into a more self-aware "hipoisie." This might be an effective update, but it is hard to judge because director Heather Anne McAllister mistook funny voices and animal imitations for humor. The actors' actions and inflections did not connect in any way to the text they spoke, which made it hard to understand what was said. It also made the action monotonous and gave away the play's climax, an argument in which words and their meaning disconnect before the audience's very ears, long before it came. The expert clowning of the actors got laughs, but fewer and fewer as the piece moved on, because there was no build.
Oddly enough, the many video segments showed just how funny an updated Bald Soprano could be. Speeches from the play were performed in the style of Melrose Place, public access, and the Learning Channel. These scenes translated the etiquette-bound behavior of Ionesco's characters into contemporary media-programmed behavior. If the wit and style of the video had been matched by the onstage action, the production would have been a total delight.
In spite of the preceding shortcomings, there was much to enjoy. McAllister showed fine choreographic sense in the variety of ways she found to use the space.
The cast (Heather Anne McAllister, Joe Stockton, Janet Gaynor, Kelly McAllister, Tabatha Hall, and Jack Halpin) was uniformly excellent. The conviction and good humor each actor brought to the production almost made
the disjointed stage business work. The uncredited costumes had a dress-up-party silliness that was genuinely funny. A musical score by Joe Shapiro also did much to enliven the proceedings.
Copyright 1996 Michael Yawney
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