Fort Worth — “All theatre is absurd,” proclaimed Eugene Ionesco, one of the founding fathers of the revolutionary theatrical movement dubbed (appropriately) as Theatre of the Absurd, or Absurdism, by critic Martin Esslin in 1962. Works by Ionesco, Jean Genet, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and many others reflect a post-World War II sensibility, namely that there is no higher purpose or order to human existence, and as such, language cannot truly convey meaning from one human being to another and thus begins to break down into sheer meaninglessness.
Sounds like a fun night at the theater, right? But the real trick of Ionesco is just that—he does give you a fun night at the theater, a spoonful of sugar that makes you miss the medicine as it goes down. In the moment, you’re swept away by the nonsense, by the mad, looping, contradictory wordplay. It’s only in the car on the way home that your mind begins to parse the sense from the nonsense, the deep, resonant existential questions such silliness poses to its audience. Michael Muller Productions (collaborating with DragStrip Courage) has put up a solid, sometimes excellent, evening of Ionesco with briskly paced productions of the playwright’s best known work, The Bald Soprano, and the somewhat less produced piece, The Lesson, in an ambitious double feature.
Originally produced in Paris in 1950, The Bald Soprano is one of the seminal works of Absurdism. Describing the “plot” of the piece is both extremely simple, and utterly meaningless: essentially, two couples, the Smiths (Seth Johnston and Lindy Benton-Muller) and the Martins (Elijah Muller and Britnee Schoville), get together for a dinner party, interrupted at times by the Smith’s maid (Lydia Pena) and the local fire chief, as the clock (Michael Muller, also the producer and director of the piece) keeps time. But this description does little to convey the real sense of the piece. Both couples speak in banalities, unmoored from reality. There’s a sense that individual identity cannot be maintained—the Martins, particularly, have a famous exchange as they attempt to determine why they each seem so very familiar to one another, which both actors handle with aplomb. Johnston and Benton-Muller have a gruff chemistry as the older Smiths, and Benton-Muller in particular displays both verbal and physical comedic chops. And special mention is almost required of any actor who tackles the Fire Chief’s role—here played by Nolan Chapa--which includes a monologue so dense and nonsensical that it defies memorization; Chapa manages to emerge from the verbal maze singed, but triumphant. All in all, the ensemble offers a crisp, fast-paced interpretation of the classic.
The Lesson offers similar, but distinct challenges. Almost a two-hander (barring the presence of a servant), it calls for a more defined emotional arc from its characters. The action of the piece is straightforward—a young woman (Lydia Pena) comes to the home of a well-respected professor (Michael Muller) for tutoring, and the professor, shrugging off the warnings of his maid (an amusingly grim Lauren Kirkpatrick) regarding his previous experiences with pupils, grows increasingly agitated by her inability to absorb his lessons as the play comes to an abrupt and violent end. Again, Ionesco is exploring the inability of language to convey real meaning—much of the professor’s lessons are focused on teaching his pupil the distinctions between various languages, which, he blusters, are markedly similar (almost indistinguishable) due to how completely they differ. In this piece, however, there’s some initial sense of order that eventually descends into chaos rather than existing there from the word go. Pena does well with her initial scenes, conveying the character’s youth, but also her confidence and pluck. And Muller brings a much-needed gravitas to the professor, who gradually slides from a timid geniality into increasing anger and frustration before building towards violent rage. Muller’s performance is nuanced and controlled, perhaps a shade too much—the play’s climax feels somewhat more jarring than it might have otherwise if the character’s emotional arc had been allowed to spin out of control more completely, but that may be more the fault — or intent — of the script. It’s Absurdism, after all — one can hardly ask for too much realistic character development.
Both pieces have an element of circularity — we’ve been here before, and we will come here again. Perhaps there is futility in attempting to change an outcome through repetition, but perhaps Ionesco suggests there is hope in the attempt. Maybe next time we’ll get it right, say what we mean to say and really get through to one another. Or maybe not. Either way, Arts Fifth Avenue, in conjunction with Mr. Muller and DragStrip Courage, has mounted a lovely evening of Ionesco for their audience. Enjoy them first and foremost; ponder on them at leisure.