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UNCW Brilliant Boxing Match:
‘The Bald Soprano’ and ‘The Room’
UNCW’s SRO Theatre
611 S. College Rd. • $5-$12
9/29-10/2, 8 p.m. or 2 p.m., Sunday

A confrontation between Nick Williams, left, as Mr. Martin and Owen Hickle-Edwards as Mr. Smith in “The Bald Soprano.” Courtesy of UNCW Theatre Department

UNCW’s brilliant boxing match comprises “The Bald Soprano” by Eugene Ionesco and “The Room” by Harold Pinter; it makes for an interesting combination. Both plays are frequently produced and published with another work. “The Room” and “The Birthday Party” often act as pairings, and “The Bald Soprano” has been running with “The Lesson” in France for over 50 years.

Part of the mission of university theatre is to produce works that have importance in the cannon of dramatic literature but have, shall we say, limited box-office appeal. Having a built-in audience in the form of the student body and resources of the school to draw upon, as well as a mission to educate not only their students but to provide a cultural resource for the campus and the community, university theatre has done much to keep alive many lesser-known works (a good example would be UNCW’s production of Shakespeare’s “King John” a few years ago). That is not to say that neither Pinter nor Ionesco have any draw, but it is limited compared to a big, well-known musical.

Theatre of the absurd is just that: absurd. The deconstruction of societal mores which typified the post-war period leading to the 1960s was ripe for creating an externalist art form to capture the ridiculousness of the shifting values and crumbling power structure of society, and the emptiness of the individual life.

Harold Pinter’s work is usually depressing and at best confusing. “The Room” provided him a career-launching piece of work that takes place in a British bedroom, set in a large rooming house. Rose (Laura Higginson) is trying to get her husband Bert Hudd (James Northrop) fed and ready to deliver something in his van on a cold, windy, snowy night. Their landlord, Mr. Kidd (Alex Holland), comes in to tell Rose that there is a man in the basement, who has been waiting to see her without Hudd around for a few days; the urgency to see him now becomes apparent. Then a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Sands (Davis Byrd and Alex Acuff) arrive looking for a room to rent. Things go from bad to worse.

The cast works well with this confusing and challenging script, but Higginson as Rose really deserves recognition for her role. In times like this, I wish we had some sort of theatre awards around here like a local Tony, because this is performance that should be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. First, her accent was strong and realistic and maintained consistently throughout the piece. Secondly, she made Rose a real and sympathetic character in a sea of insanity. It wasn’t just that she got the mechanics right—but she brought humanity to the stage in a basically inhumane show.

The premise of the evening is that the two shows share the same set. At intermission the dressing of one piece is removed and changed for the dressing of the second. The hard, grey world of borderline poverty in Britain is replaced by upper middle-class style. To say it was great and the costuming wonderful should be unnecessary. With a full set shop, costume shop and student crew getting credits at their disposal, it would be pretty inexcusable not to turn out a high level of production value. The lighting for “The Room,” with the window special and the snow effect was particularly well done.

The second half of the evening, Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano,” is funny and more light-hearted. The show opens with Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Owen Hickle-Edwards and Maria Katsadouros) sitting in their living room after dinner, discussing their meal and assorted friends. We meet their maid, Mary (Hannah Smith), and the friends they have been expecting, Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Nick Williams and Tori Keaton). On a somewhat false alarm, the local fire chief (Bobby Romadka) arrives. Things begin to deteriorate, and language breaks down.

Tina Howe of “Coastal Disturbances” fame has turned in a wonderful translation with a strong rhythm and flow to the text. Ionesco once said he got the inspiration for the show from the mundane repetitive conversations portrayed in recorded language courses. Sadly, both Hickle-Edwards and Katsadouros are seniors and will be graduating soon. I have really enjoyed their work at UNCW and will miss getting to see them onstage (unless, of course, they stick around for their foray in the greater Wilmington theatre scene). In “The Bald Soprano,” they not only play off each other well but really embrace the absurdity of the script. But it is Hannah Smith as Mary who really steals the show. The maid is such an incongruous character with the rest of the cast; she breaks the fourth wall, she contradicts the established plot, and she borders on realistic. Smith gives her vitality and strength.

The humor of “The Bald Soprano” is accessible and delightful, a welcome release after the stark world of “The Room.” The pairing works well for leaving the audience on an upbeat vibe. I look forward to more mid-century absurdity in UNCW’s season with their February 2012 production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit,” directed by Ed Wagenseller.

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