A Feat of Absurd Proportions: The 24-Hour Bald Soprano

It was 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, March 2nd, and a wall of round analog clocks, all ticking away and gradually running their circuit, stood adjacent to the entrance of the Frear Ensemble Theater. The clock in the center of the wall had several of its hours blacked out and obscured beneath a layer of black marker on its surface. Beyond the clock-filled wall, a life-size diorama filled the stage. The left side of the diorama showed a darkened kitchen that served as a sort of backstage for the production. The main room, centered in the theatre, showed a simple English living room, complete with bright yellow wallpaper, unremarkable furniture, and an even less unique front door. In this centermost space, an equally unremarkable English family, the Smiths, began to converse amongst themselves. “The Bald Soprano” had begun, and nobody in the audience had any choice but to become an integral part of it.

“The Bald Soprano” is the English translation of “La Cantatrice Chauve”, written by Eugène Ionesco. The premise of the absurdist comedy revolves around two English families, the Smiths (Emily Uhlmann ’19 and Max Marckel ’19) and the Martins (Shelby Billups ’20 and Arijit Nerurkar ’19).  The Smiths have invited the Martins over for an evening, and before the Martins arrive, they argue amongst themselves about a deceased friend’s widow. When the Martins arrive, the maid, Mary (Josephine Ross ’21) announces their entry. The Smiths exit the stage, and the Martins, believing themselves to be strangers, engage in a lengthy conversation during which they come to the realization that they are husband and wife. When they find peace in the fact and fall asleep, Mary informs the audience that they cannot, in fact, be husband and wife. The Smiths re-enter, and during their conversation, the Fire Chief (John Wojciehowski ’19) arrives at their house, hoping for there to be a fire. When he finds out that there is no fire, he becomes disappointed, but the Smiths promise to call him in the case of a fire. Mary then re-enters and informs the two families that the Fire Chief is her lover. After the Smiths force her and the Fire Chief to leave, the two families argue about no issue in particular. They reach no conclusions, and the play ends with an uncomfortable lack of resolution. The lights die down, and when they come on again, the Martins are in the Smiths’ living room saying the Smiths’ lines from the beginning of the show, having switched places. In the production on Friday to Saturday, this cycle continued for 24 full hours.

It made no sense. It was never supposed to make any sense.

“The Bald Soprano,” if nothing else, is a play that openly acknowledges its own absurdity. Several run-throughs contained new “Easter eggs,” so to speak, of which most of the cast remained unaware before its occurrence. The interchangeable nature of the two main couples further removed any sense of stability or closure from the show. Between the twenty-four unique iterations of the same piece, some more unbelievable than the others, the seemingly-predictable cycle turned into one that made the audience howl with laughter, even during the twenty-fourth showing. The pure absurdity that ensued among the two average English couples masterfully eliminated any chance of meaningful interpretation of the piece, leaving the audience to wonder what the hell just happened. For audience members who stayed to watch multiple cycles of the show, the performance became like a game to spot the differences.

Uhlmann, who played both Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Martin, said that the Easter eggs worked to keep the cast awake and engaged throughout the cycles.

“We knew the Easter Eggs were coming, but, unless we were assigned to carry them out, we did not know when they were coming or what they would entail. There was one Easter Egg in which the doorbell quacked like a duck instead of ringing. The improvisation that my cast members came up with made me completely break onstage … I think I held it together better for the other Easter Eggs — except for the one in which Max was in a Speedo.”

The show also displayed a fascinating contrast between the disconnected nature of the characters in their environment, and the evident togetherness of the cast, crew, and audience. The characters within the play displayed no understanding of each other, often spouting long chains of non-sequiturs in conversations that led to absolutely nowhere. When they argued, they not only talked over each other, but displayed a flagrant lack of willingness to engage in any fort of meaningful communication. The characters of “The Bald Soprano” talked for no other reason than to talk, and when they did speak to each other, they seldom faced each other. Instead, they stood straight forward when they spoke, as if to address the audience. This detachment from each other not only contributed to the uncomfortable nature of the piece, but amplified it to its level of nonsense.

This detachment and sense of disfunction, according to Uhlmann, was deeply intentional.

“One of the most important things we worked on in the process leading up to the performances was learning to be especially precise with our movements,” she said.  “Our director would be able to explain this more eloquently, but we talked about how we were playing “paper cut-outs” and not actual, living people. Every move we made needed to be intentional.”

Despite the disjunction among their characters, the six-member cast showed an extraordinary level of togetherness of the production. Of course, involvement in a 24-hour production like “The Bald Soprano” demands nothing less than utmost collaboration and sensitivity to other performers, but the synchronization and compassion that the performers showed for each other brought a new level of depth to the piece. No actors seemed to miss a line, and if they did, then the other cast members worked around the error in a manner that made it undetectable. In addition to the closeness between the actors, the audience consistently engaged with the show. The audience broke down in peals of laughter at times, and loudly gasped at others. The more seasoned audience members cheered during the very last show at every actor’s entrance, as well as chanting along with the cast during the ending refrain of “It’s not that way, it’s over here!”

It is difficult to begin to imagine the amount of labor and dedication that led to the final 24-hour performance. The most obvious physical toll is the exhaustion that one would experience after hours and hours of performing, but Uhlmann detailed other sacrifices as well.

“Our rehearsal schedule was pretty intense as we had to cram a semester’s worth of rehearsals into the first half of the semester. We rehearsed from 5:00 p.m. [to] 10:00 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 12:00 p.m. [to] 6:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. In addition, we were all required to go to the gym regularly and eat healthily. All members of the cast were asked to give up coffee and any other form of caffeine. Our director explained that the performance was going to be a marathon, and we needed to prepare our bodies accordingly.” She added, “The lifestyle changes (no coffee, exercising, eating healthily) were … difficult at first, but I ended up appreciating the impact these changes had on me and I am still maintaining them now — except for the coffee; I am so drinking coffee again.”

Alongside the level of sacrifice involved in the show, Uhlmann commented on the euphoria and elation that she felt once the production of Herculean scale finally closed after 24 hours.

“Oh my gosh,” she said, “it was one of the best moments of my entire life. Words cannot describe the sheer joy and immense release I felt. I was shaking uncontrollably and could not stop smiling. The audience reaction was incredible; they shouted the last lines of the play with us and then gave us a roaring standing ovation. It was the most rewarding feeling. I was so grateful and filled with the most amazing sense of accomplishment.”

The 24-hour run of “The Bald Soprano” will perhaps be remembered as one of the most ambitious, if not the most ambitious production of the Swarthmore theatre department to date. The cast and crew deftly wove together the utterly absurd, nonsensical, undecipherable play into what became a once-in-a-lifetime performance to attend — not only the play as a whole, but each individual hour with its quirks and eccentricities.

When asked if there was anything else that should definitely be mentioned, Uhlmann gave a warm acknowledgement to the unity that she and everyone involved with the production felt as it took place.

“I would love to express my gratitude to everyone involved in the process and production, and to everyone who came out and supported us. I think we averaged about 33 audience members per show with a final view count of over 700. I am so honored and grateful that we received such a positive response.”

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