The cast of Brat's The Bald Soprano on the absurdity of performing for 24 hours straight

January 19, 2010

Of daring and delirium


January 19, 2010

Brat Productions is staging Eugene Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” 24 times in 24 hours without a break, taking the play’s absurdity to even more ridiculous heights.

The majority of productions stop at one performance.

And Madi Distefano allows that one would have provided ample opportunity for innovation. She also acknowledges that she very well could have concluded at two or some other conservative offering.

But 24, she says, is a beautiful number. It’s also what the resident artist at Brat Productions envisioned when she first read Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic “The Bald Soprano.”

The one-hour play satirizes the conformist world of the bourgeoisie, where decorum, prudishness and other class affectations have made for a soulless existence devoid of all traces of individuality.

The script revolves around two English couples, the Smiths and the Martins, who have gathered for what appears to be a typical evening in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. As all communication and sense of propriety break down, the play moves toward an unexpectedly batty conclusion: Ionesco’s script actually calls for the action to begin again at the end, with the Martins substituted for the Smiths and vice versa. Two additional characters, the Fire Chief and Mary the maid, retain their roles throughout.

The continuous loop could, of course, merely be hinted at as the curtain begins to fall. But Distefano, who founded Brat in 1996, with the goal of providing “event-oriented theater,” saw the potential to further heighten the play’s absurdity.

“I read (‘The Bald Soprano’) as a college kid and was, like, ‘Dude, wouldn’t it be cool if it just kept going and then the Martins became the Smiths, and the Smiths became the guests?’ I saw it as a never-ending ‘I Love Lucy’ episode,” she says.

And so on Friday, “The Bald Soprano” will be performed for a continuous 24 hours in the Harold Prince Theatre of the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. That’s six actors doing 24 performances straight, without a break in between.

“This makes it a spectacle that really showcases the actors and the art of acting,” says Distefano, who actually is directing the piece for the third time, following its Philly Fringe Festival debut in 1998 and a revival in 2007. “It shows off the athleticism of the performers and the skills and training of an artist.”

If the entire concept sounds crazy, cast and crew have taken to it with an almost maniacal glee.

“It’s exactly the kind of thing I like to do. I like things that are unconventional and bizarre and a really different manifestation of theater,” enthuses Victoria Frings, who plays the roles of Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Martin.

Jake Blouch, who portrays her male counterparts, is equally enthralled — yet wary.

“It’s a risk for the actors,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m going to escape this with my sanity.”

Compounding the seeming lunacy of mounting such a production are the linguistic challenges inherent to Ionesco’s script.

“The Bald Soprano” in many ways is a tragedy of language. While all the characters have plenty to say, they say it in inane clichés and random phrases that are often inconsistent and contradictory. Such meaningless fragments are bandied about with complete — and intended — disregard for the resulting incoherence. Yet as the meandering dialogue accelerates to a series of babble-like non sequiturs, the characters appear alienated and alone, thwarted in both their attempts to communicate and to use logic to foster some understanding of the world.

“The struggle for communication is what we will effectively communicate to the audience,” says Distefano. “(The play) becomes about relationships and communication, which is what makes it funny, which is what makes it tragic. It’s about the tragedy of modern communication and all these big, fancy words that we use and all these tools we have at our disposal and yet we can’t connect.”

That the set, costumes and makeup are all in black, gray and white throws the chaos into even more dramatic perspective, with the children’s furniture that the characters occupy only enforcing the unconscious restraints of their conformity.

“I liked the idea of forced perspective and things being out of scale. They don’t notice how they’re confined and trapped in their own little boxes,” says Distefano.

Some of the play’s more absurd moments include the Martins’ inability to recognize each other as husband and wife, leading to repeated attempts to determine the nature of their relationship. Substance, however, is in short supply in such conversations, as when the Smiths engage in an impassioned argument about whether someone’s at the door when the doorbell rings, and spend an inordinate amount of time struggling to distinguish who is who in an apparently unending lineage of family members, all named Bobby Watson.

Even an anticipated reference to “The Bald Soprano” appears confounding.

When Nathan Holt’s character, the Fire Chief, mentions the play’s supposed titular inspiration, the others react as if he’s uttered something horribly offensive. The only eventual response comes from Mrs. Smith, who replies “she always wears her hair in the same style.”

“It’s a difficult thing to act because, as an actor, you spend all this time thinking about ‘w mean to this’ — here, there’s no meaning to anything,” says Blouch. “To really perform this play well, you almost have to turn off the logical part of your brain.”

To prepare for their high-octane performance, the cast in recent weeks has traded in its regular coffee for decaf but will revert to caffeine on Friday, looking for a fresh jolt after abstaining for so long. (“It’s so you can use caffeine like speed. It’s cheap, it’s legal and it works,” says Distefano.)

Frings, who will be taking off for Tanzania following the production to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, has also given up alcohol and has been incrementally staying up past her normal bedtime to “push back the expectation of what’s late and when your body gets tired.” Performing a single production nonstop for 24 hours definitely has its drawbacks, she says, but it’s also not without its advantages.

“In the wee small hours of the morning, at 1 o’clock, someone can space out on a line and there’s always going to be someone who can pick it up,” she says.

According to Holt, sleep deprivation only adds to the absurdity of the play, as the text and its delivery begin to unravel accordingly.

The actor is appearing in “The Bald Soprano” for a second time, having played the Fire Chief in the 2007 run at the Wilma Theater. Though he admits to experiencing “hills and valleys of enthusiasm” the first go-round, he notes that the 24th hour came amid a burst of exhilaration.

“It certainly ended on an upswing and that was surprising and ecstatic at the same time,” says Holt. “I’m doing it a second time to get that high again.”