Time and space mean nothing in the absurdist universe. All signs and symbols of modern life were up for reconsideration and ridicule in the one-act plays staged last weekend by TheatreUNCA.
First up was The Room, set in a flat in Britain on a cold night. Inside, Rose (played by Alex Mbuthia) and Bert (Jarrett Lefler) live a mundane, if comfortable, existence where she does the talking and Bert sits, unresponsive. It’s a one-sided relationship, but we don’t know why. Rose is afraid of noises from the basement apartment. She frets about neighbors and worries that Bert’s car might slip on the ice forming on the roads. The landlord, Mr. Kidd (Dan Wood), visits. And, later, a couple drop in hoping to rent the very flat where Bert and Rose now live. Something’s wrong, but we don’t know what.
Rose is the enigma here, and her final visitor, a blind man named Riley (Geordie Bailey), begins to dismantle the facade of middle-class security represented in the room. The pacing is excellent as Rose grows more agitated with each visitor’s arrival. It’s only when Bert returns home that we see the genuine menace of the relationship. The cozy room becomes a prison.
This play, by Harold Pinter, was written to shock, which is why the unconventional structure and plot are so gratifyingly unsettling. It reminds us of how cleverly violence can reside in any household and how, perhaps, we don’t really want to see it.
The Bald Soprano, by Eugene Ionesco, takes place in another flat, this time with an upper-middle-class couple. A lovely dinner table is set for guests. Mrs. Smith (Mbuthia) and her husband (Lefler) are expecting Mrs. Martin (Mae Tesh) and her husband (Alex Fus). We know something is off about this setting because the clock chimes and Mrs. Smith responds in an almost robotic manner, as if controlled by time. The clock is suspended overhead and is bent to resemble those in Salvador Dalí’s painting, “The Persistence of Memory.” This clock, however, doesn’t keep good time. Throughout the play, the chimes indicate that we are not in a predictable, regimented space. This is an absurdist space.
In the Smith household, people read the newspaper and chat amiably. When the Martins arrive, that’s when polite dinner conversation devolves into a series of shouting matches, nonsequiturs, aphorisms and clichés. The standout performance is by Tesh, who, because Mrs. Martin has memory problems, cannot recall the trip to the dinner party, who her husband is or even how they met. Tesh has a canny sense of comedic timing and delivers a performance full of the physicality and facial expressions necessary to pull off this classic absurdist exchange. The ending of The Bald Soprano is just as startling as that of The Room, which makes them a wonderful pair.
While there are no upcoming performances of these shows, TheatreUNCA will stage Nothing’s Happening — A Black Mountain College Project, based around BMC professor John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing. The show is in collaboration with this semester’s Black Mountain College Legacy Fellow Leon Ingulsrud of the New York City-based SITI Company and will be presented Thursday-Saturday, April 18-20. The students will also take the show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. Learn more at drama.unca.edu/theatre-unca.