Absurd's the Word

Charenton's troika of absurdist plays is perfect for cockeyed pessimists.

Absurdity in the Streets Rockefeller Park in University Circle (August 19-21) and at Edgewater Park (August 26-28) Presented by the Charenton Theater Company; www.charenton.org.
Andrew Narten, Meg Santisi, and Allen Branstein drivel - divinely in The Bald Soprano.
Andrew Narten, Meg Santisi, and Allen Branstein drivel divinely in The Bald Soprano.
Whoever had the nerve to name Charenton's outdoor tour of free theater Absurdity in the Streets -- and imagined that such a title would stand out in the context of our daily lives -- is either fiendishly ironic or desperately clueless. It's clear to anyone who's been paying attention that the last thing we need in our streets is more absurdity. From President Bush, who blathers inanely and subverts logic at every turn (just like a Eugene Ionesco character!), to Tiger Woods, who now professes to be more interested in just making the cut at tournaments than in being the world's No. 1 golfer (i.e., winning), there is a profusion of palpable nonsense loose everywhere. And if we didn't know better, the blandly terrifying color-coded alert system for homeland security, which nobody understands, could easily have been a plot device created by Harold Pinter or Jean-Paul Sartre and not that other master of absurdist drama, Tom Ridge.

In any case, the gifted folks in the Charenton group are lighting up these late summer evenings with three classic pieces (presented separately, one per night) from the aforementioned playwrights. And while the production results are somewhat mixed, there are some spectacular moments when these comically pessimistic visions mesh insightfully with our seriously akimbo world.

The tower of babble

The Bald Soprano, by playwright Eugène Ionesco, is a sweet symphony of conversational drivel that builds, one banal comment and meaningless story at a time, until the entire tower of babble comes crashing down. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are spending a quiet evening in their suburban London home; she rattles on about salty soup and which grocer has the best cooking oil, while he reads the paper. Andrew Narten and Kristie J. Lang are properly stiff and infuriatingly delightful as the Smiths, whether smiling indulgently or grinning maniacally at their lives of quiet desperation. And their extended discussion of the large Watson family, in which every person is named Bobby, is exquisite.

Soon they are joined by the Martins, an ever-so-polite couple (Doug Kusak and Laura Rauh) who seem not to know each other until they slowly unravel the fact that they share the same bed in the same flat and that, yes, that means they must be married to each other. After the happy reunion, the Smiths' maid, played to perfection by a slumping and galumphing Meg Santisi, enters and informs the audience that they're actually mistaken. And a bit later, a fire chief (Allen Branstein) joins the group to regale them with a story of a male calf giving birth to a cow (but as a male, sadly, he couldn't be called "Mother").

All of this is utterly without meaning -- except, of course, for the larger concept, which is right on the mark -- pointing out by example how the waves of words we exchange each day often separate us from other people and from any real connection to ourselves. Thanks to the precise pacing and style established by director Fred Gloor, and a brace of finely tuned performances, this one-hour work plays like a weirdly involving sitcom with a trenchant moral.

Love, hell style

No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre, is the flagship of the absurd genre and features the most telling idea of all: Hell is other people. One man and two women, each now deceased, find themselves confined in a mirrorless, windowless, but otherwise pleasantly furnished room. Suspecting that this is hell, they begin to wonder where the torturer is, but are distracted by each other's stories, which relate their shortcomings in their pre-death existence. Tensions soon rise between the self-important Garcin (Kusak) and Inez (Lang), a confrontational lesbian who is attracted to the lovely but clinging Estelle (Rauh), who's making eyes at Garcin.

It doesn't take long before the characters and the audience understand that each person is the other's torturer and that they are destined to remain in this brightly lit room forever, always with their eyes wide open. Even when the valet (David A. Crighton) opens the door, they are not able to leave, having become dependent on the pain that never hurts quite enough. This is Sartre's metaphor for many people's lives, before or after death. As one character says, "One always dies too soon or too late." And it hardly matters which: same shit, different day.

Director Dan Kilbane moves his actors well, but the pace lags, since the dialogue never takes on a life of its own. Some beats are blurred, and distinct characters are pulled down in the undertow of Sartre's existential word-games. But the essence of this compelling minidrama is still sufficient to tease and torment.

Killers in the kitchen

The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter, explores the dynamics of communication and worker/boss power games by focusing on two lower-class British hit men, who are bunked temporarily in the abandoned kitchen of a café. As they wait for orders from their unseen leader concerning their imminent next assassination, Gus (the slow, submissive one) and Ben (the sly, aggressive one) quibble about minor issues, such as whether the correct phrase is "light the kettle" or "light the gas" when they're preparing tea. Meanwhile, a dumbwaiter repeatedly clatters down and delivers mysterious orders for food, apparently coming from their mischievous capo.

Gus and Ben are rendered by Narten and Branstein, respectively, each playing against his natural type. Narten gets the best of the bargain, turning Gus into a simple, needy soul who knows he can't fight the invisible system that rules his life. As Ben, Branstein doesn't quite master the challenging interplay of superiority over his comrade and fawning obedience to the ruler from above. The interchanges between the two characters are handled well by director Mindy Childress, but there's not enough tension created in the silences leading to the surprising dénouement.

Every summer, Charenton takes its talent to local parks and offers performances free of charge. This three-pack of theatrical milestones from the theater of the absurd is a valuable, entertaining addition to their alfresco series.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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