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`BABIES,’ `BALD SOPRANO’ REVEL IN ABSURDITY - AND CONTROVERSY

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Good thing these two one-act plays are at the Art Barn, a building with an art gallery on the main floor and an intimate performance upstairs. It simplifies the following analogy:

Equating these plays to the generally conservative, mainstream fare that most theatergoers in this area flock to is sort of like comparing an abstract painting by Picasso to a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.The abstract painting may be filled with splashes of brilliant color, but it's esoteric to the extreme and you have to search deeply for the work's soul and meaning.

TheatreWorks West's evening of two "absurdist" comedies will definitely not appeal to most mainstream Utahns (and likely will offend quite a few), but for those who enjoy stimulating, thought-provoking, avant garde works, this is for you.

Both plays are directed by L.L. West, who has a knack for cutting-edge theater (such as Pinter's "Betrayal" and "On the Verge . . ." at Weber State University, where he's on the theater faculty).

Eugene Ionesco's bizarre "The Bald Soprano" starts the evening, and local playwright Rick Gould's "Babies" (NOT to be confused with the popular musical-comedy, "Baby") holds down the second half of the program.

Gould's piece, in its regional premiere, bodes the most controversy.

Absurdist theater falls into the area of societal nose-tweaking, but Gould attacks local peculiarities, not gently with his thumb and forefinger, but with a pipe wrench.

The premise is this: Laura Pierce-Richards, a design consultant for a prestigious New York firm, and her husband, Neil, an up-and-coming architect, are the ultimate yuppie couple. It's one of those We Want It All and We Want It Now relationships.

They even had a baby - little Francine Amelia Richards.

"In the corporate workplace," Laura laments, "if you put nine months worth of time and effort into a project you expect some kind financial reward!"

But Francie, the couple soon discovers, just doesn't fit in with their designer furnishings and cellular phones. So they solve this unanticipated problem just like any corporate executive would - in a manner that is, one would expect, environmentally correct and expediciously efficient.

They eat her.

(This is what absurdist theater is supposed to be - absurd.)

Playwright Gould never infers that this is a realistic approach; he's probably using it to shock audiences into looking at this couple's valueless, empty existence.

The incident in question has taken place before the play begins (and, in fact, what Neil and Laura have done has already been ballyhooed by the supermarket tabloids). In essence, the audience for "Babies" has been invited into their home so that they can explain their side of the sordid story.

The already bizarre one-act exercise takes an interesting turn when the Richardses are visited by the couple renting the apartment next door - Brother and Sister Featherstone, a pair of Mormon missionaries.

"You mean that nice little gentleman I see on the elevator is her brother! That's incestuous!" Neil exclaims, when his wife intimates they might be dropping by.

It's the first of many misconceptions that non-LDS may have about members of the church that Gould throws into his play.

And it's this confrontation of the yuppie couple vs. the Mormon conservatives that's sure to offend quite a few people. The Featherstones are caricature-ized more than characterized as rather simplistic folks.

Some aspects offended me (and I try to maintain a fairly open mind), but Gould does prod you into wondering just how our sheltered society is perceived by outsiders.

For a point of reference, I'd guess that audiences offended by "Saturday's Voyeur" would probably feel the same about "Babies."

But the play does have wildly funny moments, and the cast - Trudy Jorgensen and Michael Behrens as Laura and Neil, and Richard and Marilyn Scharine as the Featherstones - do an outstanding job.

The same ensemble performs in Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano," an hourlong comedy piece that, while not as outwardly bizarre as "Babies," will still leave you scratching your head and mumbling "Huh?"

In the Ionesco work, which has "classic" status in the absurdist arena, the Scharines portray Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a couple enjoying life in the suburbs of London. About midway through the proceedings, they're joined by Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Behrens and Jorgensen), who show up cross-dressed in tennis attire. They've been kept waiting at the front door because the maid (Mary Bishop - in an outrageous performance) had the day off, so no one's answering the door.

The Smiths, suddenly confronted by company, go off to change - and resurface awhile later also cross-dressed.

But it's not the costumes, it's the language that makes "The Bald Soprano" click. It rarely makes sense (it's not supposed to), but Ionesco makes his point about life's absurdities and how some people just seem to talk endlessly in circles. The Smiths' strange evening gets even weirder when a fireman (Steven McQuinn) shows up and everyone starts telling stories.

This intriguing pair of plays won't suit all local tastes, but TheatreWorks West should be congratulated for tackling challenging, provocative works.