Eugene Ionesco’s first play, “The Bald Soprano,” depicts a breakdown in communication between two couples as their banal conversation deteriorates into nonsensical gibberish. When Curio Theatre Company approached Charlotte Northeast to direct the play, she felt daunted by the playwright’s absurdist approach and its 1950s setting. But on first reading the play she recognized a modern parallel that immediately bridged the 65 years since its first production: the Internet.
“We have all these tools of communication and yet we say very, very little,” Northeast says. “We always want to be heard, yet we seem to drown each other out. In 1950 Ionesco wrote about the noise of small talk, the everyday things that we say to each other without ever really getting anywhere. I actually think we’ve gotten worse since he wrote it. We still have a long way to go.”
Curio’s production, from a script adapted by playwright Tina Howe, doesn’t modernize the play. Instead, through the use of projection screens, Northeast links the characters’ devolving interactions to contemporary crosstalk on Yelp or Facebook. “They’re like tiny synapses that fire,” the director explains. “They don’t move the plot, they’re meant to add a layer to it. I just wanted to give these little signposts to the audience as my way of helping them into this world.”
Northeast herself struggled at first to find her own way into the play. An actress and director as well as artistic associate for the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, she had no real experience with the Theatre of the Absurd, and was worried about the piece becoming nonsense for nonsense’s sake, a constant pitfall with productions of Ionesco. “You don’t want to go nuts,” she says. “Anybody could go in there and say, ‘Let’s do the weirdest thing possible.’ But that’s not interesting. To me the challenge was finding truth in non-sequiturs.”
That’s particularly challenging in a play with head-scratching dialogue like “Let’s go slap Ulysses in the face?” or a local fire chief making unsettling, inexplicable references to the titular bald soprano. They key, Northeast says, is to maintain the reality built into this unreal situation. “You need to find what I’m calling ‘the rules.’ They can be as absurd as you want as long as you respect those rules. So if we say the sky is green, then the sky has to be green the whole time. We’ve made an effort to find the truth and the access points so that the absurdity can really flower.”
If you go:
‘The Bald Soprano’
Curio Theatre Company
4740 Baltimore Ave.