Munro: Take a wild ride and embrace Fresno State's 'Absurd Masterworks'

The Fresno BeeMarch 15, 2014 

Upon waking in the morning, most people want to face a world that is rational. And why not? Life is chaotic. Imposing a sense of order on it seems essential.

We want our language, for example, to work like it's supposed to. The last thing we need is a TV newscaster unleashing a string of nonsense words on the morning report. We want our traffic signals to shape our morning commute in a predictable way. (Is there anything more dispassionate than shifting red, yellow and green lights?) We want our I.D. badge to open the employee entrance.

This longing for order extends a long way in our lives. Though I'd wager that most people never put it in so many words, there's an expectation that the stories that entertain us should follow some basic rules. Books, movies, TV shows and theater should have narratives that make "sense." Characters should be consistent — once one meets another, say, it's assumed they know each other, and no more introduction is needed. Language should be reliable — if a character says he just ate dinner, then he shouldn't come back later and say he hasn't eaten all day. Natural laws should be followed — if the sky is green instead of blue, there should be a good explanation.

But as I sat Wednesday evening at Fresno State watching "Absurd Masterworks," a sharp and cunning — and flat-out weird — production featuring works by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, I was struck by this thought: Sure, we identify with — and crave — rationality. But what about the worlds we inhabit before waking in the morning?

I realize not all people remember their dreams. But if you do, you might while watching the Fresno State production find strange tendrils of recognition from your subconscious wafting into your "rational brain."

Granted, this production, which opened Friday and continues through March 22, is not an easy sell. (I saw a dress rehearsal in order to make the deadline for this column and thus am not offering a conventional review, but I'm still offering my recommendation — at least for the adventurous.) Beckett and Ionesco are among the most famous playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd, a 20th Century artistic movement that took delight in tweaking rational expectations of theater. You should be prepared for, as director Ruth Griffin calls it, a "wild ride."

In the first of three offerings, Beckett's 1963 "Play," three actors are encased standing up in what look like ancient urns. The two women and one man offer rapid-fire dialogue, occasionally together in a babble but mostly one after another, offering details of an act of adultery. Eventually each are questioned by "the light," and as we lurch repeatedly from darkness to sharply focused illumination, the effect is that of an oddly disembodied interrogation.

You can try to latch onto the narrative of what seems an inane clandestine love affair, but much more important to me was absorbing the sense of musicality — and grappling with the impact of those recited lines upon me as a listener.

"I approached 'Play' from my background as a singer," Griffin says, "and thought of it as an oratorio with directives towards pitch, timbre and tempo."

So the voices could be music. Usually, in theater, language is used in an external way, just as it's used in everyday life, as communication between characters. But as audience members, we all have inner voices, one that often ruminates even as we watch something in silence. (Actually, all I know for sure is that I have an inner voice — but that raises even deeper philosophical questions. I'm just assuming that you do, too.)

As the voices in "Play" blurred by, they seemed much more connected to my own interior monologue than anything resembling a conventional narrative.

Griffin hopes that by thinking of "Play" and the other Absurdist works in the context of music, the audience can connect on a different level than traditional theater.

"When listening to a work of music I do not believe we want to figure out the meaning," she says. "We allow ourselves to be moved by the waves of sounds. These plays are waves of sound, light, text and movement. They have environments that have been carefully crafted to locate vistas of the imagination. They are seeking to dislodge your expectations of theater by establishing a relationship to you through the worlds of their being and to enliven your imagination."

The second work in the program contains no spoken language at all. "Quad," also by Beckett, could be considered the first dance piece "written" by a playwright, Griffin says.

The third and longest work in the program, Ionesco's 1948 "The Bald Soprano," is the best known — and the piece most likely to elicit laughter, consternation and sheer bewilderment.

In the play, a couple named the Smiths (Ryan Torres and Brianne Janae Vogt) prepare to host their friends the Martins (Matthew Rudolf Schiltz and Breayre Shaunice Tender). A maid named Mary (Amanda Marie Valdez) acts as a sort of narrator. Later on, another guest arrives, a fire captain (Michael Anthony Dixon Jr.). Pleasantries are exchanged. Stories are swapped. Discoveries are made.

While the basic synopsis might sound digestible enough, it soon becomes clear that Ionesco has no intention of providing a traditional narrative. When the Martins are admitted for dinner, they have no idea they know each other, and we watch them go through an extended discovery process, learning with astonishment that they live at the same address.

The interactions between the couples — who tell stories and politely exchange non sequiturs — become increasingly surreal (matching the scenic, lighting and sound design). One character recounts an anecdote about a calf that gives birth to a cow because it ate too much ground glass, for example.

You might (justifiably) say: Huh?

Ionesco systematically and progressively throughout the play dislocates language from meaning. The playwright stated: "My plan was to empty words of their content, to designify language to abolish it."

What makes the production so interesting is the way that Griffin throws so many styles into the staging, including vaudeville, clown, Commedia Dell' Arte, biomechanics, melodrama and mime. At some points, the characters suggest marionettes, their limbs flopping here and there. "I thought of visual non-sequiturs to track the verbal non- sequiturs," she says.

If all this absurdity sounds too far from reality to comfortably confront, perhaps it's best to embrace the dream analogy. Even if you are the most straightforward, practical and rational thinker, you must have experienced dreams that are just plain odd. Think of scraps of dream memories — of narratives that twist and transform, of strange movements in which you flit and fly through space, of weird fixations that seem completely logical within the world of your dream but fade to a mist when you awaken.

Then imagine them on stage.

What it takes is the ability to resist the comfort-zone desire for a rational world. "Absurd Masterworks" is indeed a wild ride. So is a roller coaster. Both can fling you around a bit, none worse for the wear, and leave a thrilling memory.


"Absurd Masterworks," 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16; 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, March 18-22; Fresno State Woods Theatre., (559) 278-2216. $17, $15 seniors, $10 students



The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbee arts on Twitter.

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