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Trans-wired desires

The Bald Soprano takes pseudo-communication to center stage

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Somewhere awash in YouTube bilge, there’s a strange little clip of a sing-along from a children’s TV show in the Netherlands. It appears to be about harvest season, or at least about vegetables. Grown adults frolic and sing with oversized produce. Someone has significantly augmented the video’s creepiness by adding subtitles of what the Dutch lyrics sound like in English, creating lines like, “Come sick and barf in the duck!” And the most profound: “Distort that tart in my nub!”

Confronted with bawdy nonsense, the mind struggles to find correlations between the English “translation” and the actors on

HOW CURIOUS IT IS! AND BIZARRE! :  Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Chase Mullins and Natalie Roy) spew mouthfuls of misunderstanding in Cal Poly Theatre Department’s The Bald Soprano. - PHOTO BY TIM DUGAN
  • PHOTO BY TIM DUGAN
  • HOW CURIOUS IT IS! AND BIZARRE! : Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Chase Mullins and Natalie Roy) spew mouthfuls of misunderstanding in Cal Poly Theatre Department’s The Bald Soprano.
 the screen (Tart? What tart? Was that a deliberate slur aimed at the woman dancing with the giant cabbage?).

The finale of the The Bald Soprano—staged by the Cal Poly Theatre Department—has roughly the same effect. Language has completely disintegrated words and phrases ripped mercilessly out of context sound idiotic, mechanical, alien. Yet some creature back in the nether reaches of the mind insists on the existence of some hidden truth, and busily lines up possible correlations, meanings, and explanations to prove its point.

The Bald Soprano opens in the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, an average American couple. Mrs. Smith (played by a deadpan Ashleigh Droz) recites what has happened over the course of the evening to Mr. Smith (an equally deadpan Jeffrey Azevedo), who was there the whole time. “We have dined well,” she informs him, adding, “That’s because we live in America, and our name is Smith.”

The idea of uniformity, already established by the Smiths’ initial conversation, and indeed, by their name, is pushed to the point of absurdity by the discussion that follows.

Mr. Smith mentions the recent passing of a family friend, Bobby Watson. Reality lapses: he has been dead for two years. No, three. Oh, wait—four. Actually he isn’t dead at all, but engaged to a woman named Bobby Watson. The Smiths must buy the couple a wedding present—Reality warp!—he is dead and has left behind two children, Bobby Watson and Bobby Watson. The widowed Bobby Watson is engaged already, the Smiths gossip, to some fellow named Bobby Watson. And the first of many senseless quarrels erupts.

The French playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano after attempting to learn English from a primer. In diligently copying the simplistic, inane statements, he learned that not only is the ceiling up, but that the floor, by contrast, is down. Very quickly the sentences took on a life of their own, reintroducing things we already know as spectacularly new phenomena. These stark, babyish truisms became the basis of The Bald Soprano.

Originally set in London, the play has been transplanted by director Al Schnupp to “the haze-filled bubble of America.” References to pop culture—war, the economy, technology, brands, magazines, fashion trends—abound.

Schnupp has also given each of the characters an obsession. One of them loves TVs, another is totally taken with sound (with a concentration on guns), and another can’t get enough booze and prescription drugs. These obsessions are garishly reflected by the costumes and a wildly imaginative set. We know all about the characters’ little hang-ups before they even emerge from their isolating, eccentrically decorated cubicles.

This version takes the play’s original themes of isolation, miscommunication, and the shortcomings of language and puts them into the context of American life.

“People have this obsession with pseudo-communication,” Schnupp says. “I think this play really speaks to modern times.” He cites cell phones and texting as especially isolating activities. After all, trying to communicate with someone at some remove from yourself also makes you inaccessible to the people around you. One particular moment in the play demonstrates Schnupp’s point especially well.

Our heroes the Smiths have visitors. The vacuous Mr. and Mrs. Martin, played to great effect by Chase Mullins and Natalie Roy, seat themselves in the Smiths’ living room. Mr. Martin spies a phone number emblazoned down the side of his wife’s posh pantsuit. He whips out his cell and dials it. She locates her phone after an exhaustive search, and a cheery, telemarketeresque Mr. Martin announces that He Thinks They Have Met Before! To the great astonishment of both parties, it is revealed that both of them are originally from the suburbs, have traveled in the same compartment of the same train at the same time, reside at the same address, and sleep in the same bed. How very curious! “Perhaps it is there that we have met?” suggests Mr. Martin, with all the detached warmth of an answering machine. “It is possible,” chirps Mrs. Martin, “But I do not recall it, dear sir.” They discover that they both have a daughter named Alice, who has one red eye and one white eye. Given this evidence, they deduce that they must be husband and wife, and embrace.

The idea of a husband and wife not knowing one another is exacerbated to the point of absurdity. But we suspend our disbelief. On a less extreme level, many of us know couples like the Martins, too busy and self-obsessed to notice one another.

Then, through all the filler words shine brilliant glimpses of truth. At unexpected intervals, all other players freeze, allowing one member of the cast to tell an intimate, personal tale. Each in turn, the actors drop character and tell the audience a touching, funny, sad, bizarre—but above all, true—story about themselves. For a moment, the business of half-truth is suspended. In contrast to the feigned propriety of the Martins and the Smiths, these stories stand out, testaments to the wild variety of human experience.

Upon the arrival of the Martins to the Smiths’ home, the couples begin making awkward small talk. But their stilted conversation goes up in flames upon the arrival of the fire chief (Nick Howell), who is looking for good American fires to put out (no illegal alien fires). As the evening continues, the two couples, the fire chief, and the maid, Mary (Rocky Jarman), engage in increasingly ridiculous banter and storytelling. Tempers begin to fray. So does language. The play closes in a wild flurry of non-sequitors.

“One can prove that social progress is definitely better with sugar,” says Mr. Martin, humping a chair. “To hell with polishing!” scoffs Mr. Smith, speed walking around the living room. “I’ll give you my mother-in-law’s slippers if you’ll give me your husband’s coffin,” offers Mrs. Martin.

“Charity begins at home,” notes her husband.

So where’s the hidden meaning in all of this? Perhaps Mary the maid said it best when she asked, “Who has any interest in prolonging this confusion? I don’t know. Let’s try not to know. Let’s leave things as they are.”

 

INFOBOX: The ceiling is above, the floor is below

Performances of The Bald Soprano will take place at Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre at 8 p.m. Nov 13, 14,15, 20, 21 and 22. General admission is $12. Senior and students tickets cost $10. Call the PAC Box Office at 756-2787 or visit pacslo.org for tickets.


Though she cannot recall it, intern Anna Weltner is most certain she has met you before! Send flabbergasted squeals of delight to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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