The first story was set as a couple's visit gone awry. The second one was set at an unlikely character's declaration, to an equally unlikely audience, of the meaning of life. Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" and "The Chairs," directed by Jamie Sweet for The Garage Theatre, in Collision with the Alive Theatre (they just merged; this is their first joint effort -- bravo!), are insightful despite their analysis of meaninglessness, inadvertently funny, and off the wall enough to get you to reconsider everything you've ever known about yourself and the world in which you live.
The two productions reflect the meaninglessness of the world a few years after the end of World War Two, a world devastated by unimaginable tragedy carried out on a monumental scale, all conducted with the infuriating and mechanical banality of "I just followed orders." We don't live in such a world now, yet, at least the horrors are not perpetrated on so large a scale. But even if there's not the global conflagration that scourged the planet in the middle of the last century, there's still the banality that Mr. Sweet describes in his Director's Notes, banality made possible by ubiquitous personal technology. "The Bald Soprano" shows the inanity of communication, while "The Chairs" shows how hard it is to establish and then communicate meaning in a world, perhaps a post-apocalyptic one, which eschews meaning altogether.
In both productions, the acting was excellent. In "The Bald Soprano," Mr. Smith (Jeff Budner) and his wife Mrs. Smith (Jonelle Holden) entertain the very-late-arrivals Mr. Martin (Matthew Julian) and his wife Mrs. Martin (Sally Nguyen). The Smiths have a Maid (Rachel Star Albright), who conducts an affair with The Fire Chief (Brandon Gillette). I'd summarize the plot but I can't.
It had to be hard enough for Budner, Holden, Julian, Nguyen, Albright, and Gillette to recite lines that are full of non-sequiturs, that don't have any context, that don't advance the action forward, that are funny, not because they're funny, because they're played as serious, like something out of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It's downright miraculous for all the actors to recite these lines in perfect synch. There's a humorous disconnect between what the individual actor says and how these words would fit into the plot if there was a plot, which there isn't, if you think of plot as a journey undertaken by characters as they develop as they confront some manner of challenge, striving to reach some goal.
In "The Chairs," the cast surmounted equal challenges. An Old Man (Craig Johnson) and his wife, an Old Woman (Robbie Danzie) prepare for a lecture. The Old Man, who worked as a general factotum, has somehow managed, in his head at least, to assemble luminaries that include generals and an Emperor, in his modest home on an island, to hear the product of his research into the meaning of life. It seems like it would be a welcome message; from what is said, Paris has been destroyed and God knows what's going on in the rest of the world.
It's clear he's had a life of persecution and travail, but he's intends to redeem himself with this presentation. He's even hired an Orator (Lysander Ruesehk) to read his findings. Johnson's tone throughout the production goes from fluttery desperation to manic impotence. This is his big chance. More an enabler than a dutiful wife, Danzie is her quixotic husband's Sancho Panza. Never mind that these guests, with whom they conduct obsequious conversations upon arrival, don't physically exist -- they're ghosts; never mind what the Old Man and the Old Woman Do at the end; and never mind what makes the Orator unqualified to reveal the meaning of life. What's significant is how, at the end of the story, the characters from both productions assemble on the stage and, after they receive our applause, they sit in the assembled -- and empty - chairs and look at us, as if we're the characters and they're the audience.
It's a disorienting experience, to say the least. Whether it's the pitter-patter of utter nonsense in "The Bald Soprano" or the delusion in "The Chairs," it's clear that the mental baggage we brought to the evening -- a play is constructed from a coherent script, discrete characters, some manner of plot, it purports to convey some manner of meaning - has been left behind in baggage claim.
The evening's success resonates on several levels. First, the choice of Ionesco whose relevance we may no longer be attribute to themes of absurdity and more to themes of banality. Second, Sweet's choreography of nonsense and absence that gets the characters to play their roles either as they recite lines that don't make sense or else to carry on conversations with a stage full of empty chairs. Third, to the casts' formidable ability to enact their roles as if nothing were out of the ordinary. And fourth, to the subtle though nonetheless powerful way in which these stalwart characters, by the end of the evening, sit to watch us, as if to say, Yeah, we may be up on the stage but, face it, this is all about you.
Performances are 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The show runs until June 8. Tickets are $15-$18. The Theatre is located at 251 E. 7th Street, Long Beach, 90813. For more information call (562) 433-8337 or visit www.thegaragetheatre.org.