Ionesco classics — “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson” — kick-off Krannert season

An absurdist double-header marked the opening of Krannert’s Season of Classics, as presented by the University of Illinois Department of Theatre. Full disclosure: I must be honest that my personal tastes are not for postwar theatre of the absurd. Once I realized what I had gotten myself into, I found it hard to separate myself from the dislike of genre to take in the performances. I don’t find representations of fragmentary and unproductive art, well, productive in its extreme operation. This may be an issue of generational influences: for much of the production the laughter came from the geriatric mix, perhaps because they aren’t so fraught with the epistemology of the moment.

The Bald Soprano and The Lesson are two separate one-act plays by Beckett-esque playwright Eugène Ionesco, both concerned with competing authorities of linguistic semiotics. This pairing has precedent, since 1957 in fact it has been in a continuous run in Paris. They are a somewhat unbalanced pair in what is admittedly an unbalanced season of “classics” for the Department of Theatre. The next production is a cobbled-together semi-adaptation of the lost women of Greek Tragedy, followed closely by not one but three Shakespeare or Shakespeare-influenced adaptations, and concluded with a grammatically-informed Victorian comedy. One could perhaps call this a season of language, but no debates about what comprises a “classic” are as yet discernible at this early stage.

If anything can be said, it is that Moon Jung Kim’s sets, particularly for The Bald Soprano, are beautiful, thoughtful and functional. The ensemble is not entirely balanced, with the strength of experience sometimes painfully apparent in some of the performances. Neala Barron’s (Mrs. Smith) performance as the lead in last season’s A History of the American Film was exceptional, but it seems again she is relied to heavily upon to carry a production inherently dependent on a balanced ensemble. Her sense of presence at times looms large over her counterparts, despite Jeremiah Lowry’s efforts to keep up. His quirky pronunciation of common place works, such as “doorbell” helped to reengage the audience, but the schtick of wild and non-referential gestures were more frustrating than humorous or meaningful. But I suppose that is the point: the play is concerned with the politics of who gets to make meaning. But the confusions and acts of mirroring were almost too alike at times, too homogenized, making it hard for any performance to stand out, or throw relief on others.

Likewise, The Lesson is concerned with the politics of who assigns meaning. Staged as a conversation between a private student and her professor, the play attempts to stage the breakdowns in language, and the performance itself mirrors the unproductivity of the dialogue–“philology leads to disaster.” For example, the student (Jaclyn Holtzman) cannot comprehend the concept of subtraction, but can provide the right answers anyway. She has memorized all the possible outcomes rather than understanding reason for them–making this a more appropriate theme for the college students in the spectating mix. Her tween whine and squeak is nicely balanced by Doug West’s (The Professor) pitchy and predictable cadence. While a more balanced pair in terms of casting of individual caricatures, their renditions are a bit heavily dependent on the unique voice pitches and rhythms.

Again, this does help to emphasize the pay’s interest in the tyranny of language. The scene of linguistic rape was particularly well-done, however, taking on a much darker tone than Soprano: the text makes analogous parts of mouth used for speech with parts of the female body. The Professor’s description of language is paired with the Students writhing on the edge of the table while he faces away. When she is eventually stabbed, it is the chalkboard, the sight of semiotic blurring, that bleeds and not her–another act of displacing meaning. Both plays also evade any sort of cogent ending; their is no possible way to end them. Acts of repetition or destruction are then the only options. We are left with a pair of plays of unending repetition: while cogently executed, they still left me with my wheels spinning.