The Bowman Ensemble's double billing of two one-act plays, Eugene Ionesco's 1950 classic "The Bald Soprano" and a brand new play by Bowman artistic director Matthew Ramsay, "Mr. Positive," makes for an evening devoted to the theater of the absurd.
It also might seem absurdly bold for a young Baltimore playwright to link himself so directly with Ionesco. The surprise of the night is that while it's easy enough to make some negative observations about "Mr. Positive," Ramsay does deliver plenty of laughs in his surreal comedy of manners.
Ionesco's nonsense-filled plays are built around the notion that few things are stranger than what is said in mundane conversation. We sputter cliches to the point where language is emptied of any real meaning. We spout non sequiturs as if logical connections existed between them. And we simply refuse to shut up, as if the noise we make will mask the emptiness inside us.
Spoofing conversational conventions, Ionesco exposed that not so cheerful emptiness. As he once said: "The human drama is as absurd as it is painful."
The Romanian-born, Paris-based playwright's first play, "The Bald Soprano," was born out of his attempt to learn English from an English-French grammar book. Simple statements like "the ceiling is above, the floor is below" are presented in such books as if they explain the fundamental laws governing the universe.
Inspired by both the linguistic and social lessons imparted by this textbook, Ionesco wrote a parody of a middle-class English couple making small talk after dinner. His satire scored on this side of the Atlantic, too, at least among those hip Americans rebelling against the unthinking conformism of '50s mass culture. Among the American playwrights influenced by Ionesco was Edward Albee, whose "The American Dream" would make an ideal double bill with "The Bald Soprano."
Ionesco is now dead, but "The Bald Soprano" lives on in our classrooms and theaters. The Bowman Ensemble's lively if ill-conceived production goes beyond interpretation and into the realm of rewriting.
The setting of the play has been shifted from London to the Hampden neighborhood of North Baltimore. Mrs. Smith (Ramona Pula) and Mr. Smith (K. Coburn-Herring) sit around after dinner talking about crabs and other Crab Town-related topics. What had in Ionesco's hands been a sendup of the English drawing-room comedy is now a less securely grounded comedy of Baltimore customs and speech patterns.
Localizing the references is a guaranteed way to make a local audience laugh, but these refashioned Smiths are no more than belching slobs. It's difficult to pull off a comedy of manners when the characters have no manners.
Also, it seems unintentionally absurd that the downscale-behaving Smiths live amid such upscale antique furniture. Then again, maybe it's because much of this furniture will be pushed around the set to serve double duty in the second play.
Happily, enough of Ionesco's convention-rattling ploys survive. This is a world in which clocks routinely chime the wrong hour; doorbells ring and yet nobody is there; a large family is discussed whose members are all named Bobby Watson; and a second couple, Mrs. Martin (Laurie Martin) and Mr. Martin (Gareth Kelly), find so many coincidences in their daily schedules that they eventually realize they are in fact married.
After expressing disappointment that there is no fire to extinguish in this home, a visiting Fire Chief (Michael Butscher) immediately starts telling a series of fable-like stories that leave the characters and the audience wondering whether there is a moral or just puzzlement to be had from this play.
A mysterious visitor to a bourgeois household also lies at the heart of Matt Ramsay's "Mr. Positive." The title character is a plumber whose positive attitude promises to lift the spirits of a grieving family. "I like to fix floods and instigate smiles," he boasts.
As Mr. Positive, Bruce Nelson brings the same limber-limbed, energy-charged approach to acting as he demonstrated in Terrence McNally's "It's Only a Play" earlier this summer at Towson State University. Deftly transforming a plunger into a trumpet, and, for that matter, his whole body into a comic instrument, his Mr. Positive seems like a riff on the character played by Jim Carrey in the movie "The Cable Guy." Summoned for repairs, he's going to either repair or demolish this family.
The slender Mr. Positive is accompanied by a hefty sidekick, Mack (Barney Thomas Rinaldi), and seeing the two of them together is inherently funny. Also funny is what happens when this duo loudly comes into the house of Mrs. Giuseppe (Anne B. Mulligan), who has just returned from the funeral of her husband. She's also not in such a good mood about her two adult children, Carlos (Jake Riggs) and Angela (Judy DeDeyn), who have yet to find their way in life.
Ramsay gets some good laughs from Mr. Positive's deft transformation of a somber wake into a silly pizza party, but only Nelson's central performance animates what otherwise remains a superficial and rather static comedy.
Perhaps sensing as much, the playwright resorts to a dramatic twist whose sudden ferocity puts audience members at risk of whiplash. In the Ionesco manner, this audacious move takes us from silliness to seriousness. Whether it's justifiable within the context of the play is open to debate, but there's no debating the playwright's ability to positively jolt us.
What: Bowman Ensemble production of the "Bald Soprano" and "Mr. Positive"
Where: Barn Theater, Catonsville Community College, 800 S. Rolling Road
When: Aug. 15-17, Aug. 21-23 and Aug. 24 at 8 p.m.; Aug. 18 at 3 p.m.
Tickets: $12 at the door, $10 in advance, $7 for senior citizens and students
Call: (410) 889-6155 or (410) 455-4508.
Pub Date: 8/14/96