BRATTLEBORO—Two plays opening this weekend at Hooker-Dunham Theater seem bent on proving that absurdism may not be so far from normal after all.
The Vermont Theatre Company (VTC) presents DUMB.soprano, an evening of two one-act absurdist plays.
Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, directed by Ben Stockman, will feature Eric Walther and James Gelter, while Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, directed by Sam Murphy, will feature Jonny Mack, Nancy Groff, Ran3dy Bright, Michelle Page, Kirsten Schrull, and Daniel Mitnik.
Both plays have a seminal place in the genre often called “theater of the absurd,” a school of writing that developed after World War II and whose most famous example is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which VTC produced several years ago. Absurdism’s central premise is that, in a godless universe, human existence has no meaning, logic, or purpose.
VTC describes The Dumb Waiter as one of Pinter’s “very best short plays.”
“The play tells the tale of two hit men who wait for orders for their next job in a claustrophobic, unused basement kitchen.
“The tension mounts when a dumb waiter mysteriously drops down into the room and begins to bring the men a variety of prepared meals. As the dishes become more and more exotic and mysterious, the two men’s inner fears and personality differences push them back and forth between absurd hilarity and unbearable tension.”
In The Bald Soprano, two eccentric couples spending a quiet evening together are interrupted by what VTC describes as “an obstinate maid and a storytelling fire chief which sends the play spinning hilariously down an Alice-like rabbit hole into a series of absurd hijinks and non-sequiturs which bear no resemblance to normal conversation.”
Although the works were written in the 1950s and have much in common, they are very different in significant ways.
Ionesco’s play is the French drama La Cantatrice Chauve, which has been translated as The Bald Soprano or The Bald Prima Donna.
On the other hand, The Dumb Waiter, which Pinter wrote after Ionesco’s play, is described by Stockman as “very British.”
Where Ionesco practically invented the genre of “theater of the absurd,” Pinter’s play has also been described as “comedy of menace,” wherein strangely disturbing things seem imminent but never quite happen.
What the two directors do agree about their plays, however, is that the crazy landscapes depicted in their dramas are not far from what we call “the real world.”
Stockman would prefer to characterize The Dumb Waiter as “harsh naturalism” rather than absurdism.
Pinter’s two hit men nervously ponder what danger may lie in store for them, leading Stockman to believe that the very real theme of the play is how “lack of information takes power away from a person.”
Stockman believes that Pinter wanted his audience “to realize that in life there is no way for everything always to be known. The unknown provides a real source of stress and disruption.”
Murphy also sees The Bald Soprano as an unusual sort of realism.
“The events in the play may seem ‘off the wall’ to us, but for the characters who live in this place, everything makes perfect sense,” he explains.
To illustrate, Murphy quotes one of the protagonists: “This is my world, my dream, my ideal.” Murphy wants his audience to enter this world through the play’s characters, and try to understand reality on their admittedly unorthodox terms.
In order to connect the events of Ionesco and Pinter as much as possible to the real world, both Murphy and Stockman have opted to direct the plays realistically.
“Everything must be grounded in reality,” says Murphy. In sets and costumes, the physical world will be decidedly familiar — a kitchen will look like a kitchen — because the dynamics of both performances will be in the contrast of these two types of “realism,” he says.
Both plays also investigate the ways language shapes reality. Stockman notes that the tension in The Dumb Waiter is underscored through “a lack of expository dialogue. It is a drama where things are suggested rather than asserted.”
Murphy believes Ionesco’s play concerns the dynamics of how words inadequately communicate what we want things to mean.
“The Bald Soprano has great wordplay,” he says. “Sometimes a single word is used three of four times with different meanings in a speech, and other times a pronoun can have three or four possible referents.”
Murphy adds that rehearsal was interrupted when the cast had an invigorating five-minute debate on how the ambiguous use of one pronoun could change the meaning of a major speech in the play.
If this sounds like demanding theater, it is: each director wants to challenge his audience.
Stockman hopes to “alienate [members of his] audience and make them uncomfortable and thereby invite them to consider the implications of the play.”
The Dumb Waiter is a drama with no simple or pat resolutions, and Stockman said it should thereby “force an audience out of their comfort zone and encourage them to confront their own life and how they live it.”
In a similar vein, Murphy hopes his audience “will attentively listen to what is being said,” no matter how “absurd” it at first seems, because they may come to see “the real world in a new light.”
At the same time, however, both directors also want to emphasize that their plays are engaging, fun, and really good shows. Stockman describes The Dumb Waiter as a witty and thoroughly “enjoyable experience.”
Murphy asserts that The Bald Soprano is an “enduring classic in which the excitement keeps building until things explode at the end of the play.”
“Audiences will be thrilled,” he says.