The Bald Soprano

I’ve just seen the Théâtre Français de Toronto production of La Cantatrice Chauve aka The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco, at the upstairs space at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

I must apologize that the run is almost over, as I tell you about one of the most exciting things I’ve seen all year, that I would recommend without reservation.

Sorry about that.

There are two versions. One can see it as I saw it tonight in French with English surtitles (Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Oct 31, Nov 1 or 2), or in French without surtitles (Sunday Nov 3).

Christina Tannous _ Sophie Goulet_ Pierre Simpson_ Manuel Verreydt_ Geneviève Langlois_ Sébastien Bertrand_Photo_Théo Belnou

Christina Tannous, Sophie Goulet, Pierre Simpson, Manuel Verreydt, Geneviève Langlois, Sébastien Bertrand (Photo: Théo Belnou)

Do you know this play?  One might read it in a theatre or drama course, yet not have the pleasure of seeing it.  Sometimes we wonder why a piece is considered so important, and don’t have the pleasure of seeing a production that takes the text and truly brings it to vivid life.  While I’ve seen it in English this is my first time seeing it in French, and boy oh boy does this production pulse with life.

Ionesco was never so seminal as in this crazy glimpse of the bourgeoisie. All the absurdists are footnotes to this play although I suppose one could look back to Jarry’s Ubu. Yet I thought I was watching a Monty Python sketch. I thought I saw Robert Wilson’s progenitor, the groundwork for minimalism in so many actions, words, silences: that lead nowhere. We get pejorative when we start calling something ‘absurd’ when of course that’s simply the human condition, isn’t it… This was a funnier version of what we saw in Turandot at the COC.

But hang onto your hat. This is one tough play to perform, a bit of a toccata, a tour de force of verbiage that’s so much harder than what actors usually are asked to do, because unlike almost every other role, Ionesco doesn’t offer the usual semantic connectors to help with memorization or shaping phrases.   One remembers lines in reply to what is said, but that’s not available when the logic is missing or twisted.  I’m reminded of Krisztina Szabo’s describing the special challenge in learning Schönberg’s Erwartung, a piece that’s almost atonal. It’s a stunning assortment of words, ‘cascades of cacas’ (and other sounds too): if you’ll excuse me for quoting one of my favorite lines.   

There are six spectacular performances on view.

Sébastien Bertrand might get the most laughs as the Captain of the Fire Brigade, making the most of this jewel of a role. Sophie Goulet is Ms Martin, inspired or challenged by Director Chanda Gibson, to show us every subtext you’ve ever fantasized while reading this play. Geneviève Langlois’s Ms Smith reminds me of so many people I don’t dare name, a brilliant satire on suburbia.

Sébastien Bertrand is the Captain of the Fire Brigade (Photo: Théo Belnou)

Sébastien Bertrand is the Captain of the Fire Brigade (Photo: Théo Belnou)

At times we’re watching performers becoming robotic. We’re in the territory inhabited by Rossini, a kind of comedy where humans become like machines, underlined by Director Chanda Gibson in the movements she choreographed for her characters.

I was especially impressed with the way Gibson shaped the play from its calm banal opening to the frenzied minutes with which we conclude.

If there’s any way you can get to see The Bald Soprano –surtitled or not –I’d suggest you go see it.

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