I'm a Riot to Follow booster. I've always admired this scrappy little band of Evergreen theater students, especially their China Miéville-like quest to brave every possible dramatic genre. In fact, it was probably inevitable that they'd take on what critic Martin Esslin called "theatre of the absurd," a mid-20th-century collection of (mostly European) plays that used gibberish to reflect our inability to communicate. I learned Clara Latimer Illson would direct Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1960) when she and I shared the stage in A Christmas Story last winter. She begged me to come see and review her production, so I felt duty bound to warn her (and you): I cannot abide theatre of the absurd. She shrugged and said she hoped to change my mind.
I'm hardly alone in my opinion. Waiting for Godot is still Earth's leading source of intermission walkouts. Absurdism is rough going any way you slice it, with actors screaming unrelated bromides at each other. The Bald Soprano is 90 minutes long without an intermission; and if you never, at any point in the show, think to yourself, "Boy, I sure wish this were over," then you're made of sterner stuff than I. That's not exactly a rave, is it? But it's the truth, though it's not the whole truth.
The larger truth is you can't watch Bald Soprano without being reminded of several other forms of comedy you probably enjoy more. Its self-absorbed rhythms are evident in the sketches of Monty Python, from "Mr. Smoketoomuch" ranting in a travel agency to John Cleese selling albatross on a stick. You'll also find echoes of its awkwardness humor in the British Office, Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis, or Borat. Indeed, there are laughs to be found in Ionesco's script, though I didn't laugh as loudly or consistently as friends of the actors in their final dress rehearsal.
I did admire the game cast. Juli Kimbrell and Grant Mcgee (Viola and Malvolio, respectively, in last year's Evergreen Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night) appear as the Smiths, a veddy bourgeois British couple. Em Donkin-Jones and Bennett Clarkson are the Martins, excitable Mancunians who pay a surprise visit only to get sucked into the Smiths' glass cage of emotion. Illson cleverly casts Megan Kelly as Ionesco's voice, revealed via stage directions and a grandfather clock that apparently lacks the ability to count. The show is well choreographed and, God alone knows how, fully memorized. It must've taken months. The script is like an explosion in a bumper sticker factory.
In fact, it wasn't long before I found myself wondering, "What's Ionesco trying to say? What's his point? Is it simply that we don't know how to talk to one another?" After a great deal of morning-after research, that's the best I can come up with. Perhaps the play would be more thematically relevant if it were delivered in LOLspeak and hashtags.
So no, I haven't been won over by theatre of the absurd. That's my bias. Yours may vary. The staging is minimal-but hey, you sure can't beat that ticket price.
[Riot to Follow Productions, The Bald Soprano, free, 8 p.m. Fri.-Sun. through May 13, The Evergreen State College, SEM II D4107, Olympia, RTFtheate