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.

Slow and steady “Macbeth” wins the race

This past week PBS aired director Rupert Goold’s filmic imagining of Macbeth, part of the Great Performances series and the companion piece to the earlier Hamlet, both featuring Patrick Stewart. The production was nearly three hours long: a very pragmatic exposition, Stewart developed slowly a sane and considered Macbeth who sparked with madness rather than worked up to it as in a crescendo. I wonder if the successful stage production also took the near three-hour duration, as the film did not take advantage of the creative act that is adaptation (and abbreviation), which, on the other hand, meant the film really trusted audiences to stick with it despite the slow exposition.

The characterization of the weird sisters typically sets the tone for a production of Macbeth. In recent adaptations over the last few years we have seen bin men, traditional mystics, and now WWII-era nurses with semi-monastic habits. Their presence in the film–as food servers, nurses, in the morgue, or performing their supernatural obligations–is ubiquitous and threaded throughout nearly all the ensemble scenes. Their presence, like Macbeth’s madness and the influence of fate, is everywhere and at all times. This clever “threading” of the witches throughout the production threw into relief Macbeth as an individual, his skill as a leader as well as his ever-present conscience.

The magnification of Macbeth as a character somewhat overwhelmed the ensemble’s cohesion, which was one of the strongest qualities of the recent PBS Hamlet. This production was clearly one earmarked for Stewart–a directorial choice that cuts both ways. It provided Stewart with some much-deserved space for moments of virtuosity, but also meant we had to deal with his character for nearly the entire film, solid, which does get wearisome. I was confused initially with his casting: Stewart turns 70 this year, and while the final scenes displayed muscles that matched a worn professional soldier’s might, his delivery was that of an older, more patient, more considered man. This may also have been my conditioning to more youthful casting choices for a play that does not require really one or the other. Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) thankfully wrought a powerful performance that balanced his deliberateness with a sense of force, sensuality, and passion.

The most interesting choice on Goold’s part for the production was the continual emphasis on food, another visual element that worked its way into nearly every scene somehow (and when not, different kinds of appetites were definitely at the fore). This is true for two scenes in particular. First, Macbeth makes a sandwich while he gives his orders to the two murders as to how they shall murder MacDuff and his son, Fleance. At the end he shares the sandwich with the murders, presenting a dramatic contrast between the mundane (of making lunch) and the extraordinary (killing an entire family). During the Dinner Scene–positioned as the catharsis of the play for this rendering–the camera also focused on the fleshy food and red wine that the ghost of Banquo has to maneuver as he walks across the table towards Macbeth. The use of food, especially in terms of luxury and gluttony, highlights one of the central premises of the play: namely, the confusing or mistaking of the natural, ordinary, and predictable for the supernatural.

While a strong and thoughtful performance, a viewer has to be completely committed to watching it, at times more for Goold and Stewart’s execution rather than entertainment or pleasure. Knowing, this, the production is absolutely worth the watch, particularly for its unique version of Macbeth as a central character and the repositioning of traditional production emphases. One could even call this a radical Macbeth as a production opting for the thoughtful rather than the razzel-dazzle.

  • Watch this film online in its entirety at PBS’s Great Performances website.
  • This film is also available for purchase in its standard DVD and Blu-Ray formats.

UPDATE 12 OCTOBER 2010: You can now also watch the really interesting interview with Patrick Stewart that aired immediately after the production online as well (which I have included below).