Theatre of the Absurd makes you think

Little Jasmine, a theatre group from Bangalore presented 'The Bald Soprano.' The well executed play though, lacked audience support.

Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian/French playwright, was one of the pioneers of the Theatre of the Absurd, along with such playwrights as Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Harold Pinter. Since he uses gibberish and parody and, sometimes, non sequitors (Latin for "it does not follow." It is most often used as a noun to describe illogical statements) as the basis of his plays, it was a fairly difficult task for the group to stage the play.

In "The Bald Soprano", too, one has to use the words "allegedly" and "apparently" very often. The excellent brochure that  Little Jasmine, the theatre group that is staged this play at Ranga Shankara (8th, 9th, 10th and 11th September, at Ranga Shankara) used these words to describe the play.

Cast and crew of The Bald Soprano. Pic: Deepa Mohan.

Given this fact, I was very impressed by the production of the play. What was immediately obvious was the excellent stagecraft brought to the dais by the members of the cast and crew of Little Jasmine – Arjun Shankar, Ashvin Mathew, Kirtana Kumar, Lekha Naidu, Prerna Kaul, and Sanjay Iyer , who formed the cast, took the trouble to bring something meaningful to the audience.

Here’s the Wiki synopsis of the play:

"The Smiths are a traditional couple from London who have invited another couple, the Martins, over for a visit. They are joined later by the Smiths’ maid, Mary, and the local fire chief, who is also Mary’s lover. The two families engage in meaningless banter, telling stories and relating nonsensical poems. At one point, Mrs. Martin converses with her husband as if he were a stranger she just met. As the fire chief turns to leave, he mentions "the bald soprano" in passing, which has a very unsettling effect on the others. After the Fire Chief’s exit, the play devolves into a series of complete non-sequiturs, with no resemblance to normal conversation. It ends with the two couples shouting in unison "It’s not that way. It’s over here!," right before a blackout occurs. The scene then starts from the beginning with the Martins reciting the Smiths’ lines from the beginning of the play for a while before the curtain closes."

When there is this element of "meaninglessness" and "nonsense" about the play, it was very creditable that the troupe managed to make a good play of it. The acting was consistently excellent; mobility of expressions, good choreography of the actors’ movements across the stage, and excellent delivery of the dialogue, all helped in the production. An hour’s play was a good length of time to keep the audience’s interest.

The lighting by Beary Mustafa must also be mentioned; every character, or words, were highlighted well, and lights switched off appropriately, giving at least a semblance of "three acts". Similarly, the sound was critical to the play; the music, and the wildly chiming clock that keeps interrupting and disturbing the actors, was very well done by Konarak Reddy, behind a white screen on the stage, on which a clock face was superimposed.

Such a fine line between "nonsense" and a set dialogue calls for direction of a high order, and certainly, Kirtana Kumar succeded very well. The entrance and exit of the cast, their expressions (or lack of them sometimes), the building tension within the scenes – all were well directed.

I liked the spare, minimalist set design, also by Kirtana Kumar. A fridge that kept belching smoke, a doorway, some chairs…these formed the set. The props and backstage unit of Bharavi, and Vineet, seemed to have been on top their job, too. I did have a bit of issue with the costume management (Anjula Lama)…the costumes were certainly not 1950’s-based as the play claims to be, though of course otherwise adequate. The sexuality of the maid, Mary was brought out by her clothes. I rather thought the costumes were actually the 21st century version of the 1950’s clothes. However, I don’t think it really made too much of a difference to the production, which was well pulled-together by Amjad Prawej, who was also responsible for the sets execution.

But there, alas, the production stopped short. In the first place, the audience was rather sparse, it being a weekday; and it was immediately obvious that some people in the audience were looking for a little light entertainment, not anything so thought-provoking as the play was. Some extremely inappropriate and loud laughter from members of the audience truly detracted from the performance. Why do people always want to laugh at a play, on the least pretext?

However, as the play progressed, the audience fell silent, and it was quite obvious that the play, and its lack of coherence, failed to hold them. As Mrs Martin said, "What’s the moral?" we are a bourgeousie audience, who expect a normal content and denouement to the play, and were left puzzled and uncomprehending at the end of the evening. Perhaps this is what the Theatre of the Absurd wishes; but for the audience, who had paid Rs.150 per head, hoping for an evening’s entertainment, it was a puzzling experience.  "At the end of a play, I want to be sure what it means, and my reactions to it" said Akanksha, who came to watch the play. "Today, I am not sure of either, which means I have not enjoyed myself."

So…I’d recommend this production only to serious students of theatre, especially those who are familiar with Absurdist fiction. For those who are expecting a light-hearted piece of entertainment…I’d say, switch on the TV set instead.

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