THEATER The Bald Soprano and A Body of Water, two very different plays, share a strange symmetry. Both feature a married couple with no recollection whatsoever of their longstanding daily relationship who gingerly grope toward mutual recognition.
Cutting Ball Theater's slick production of Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano clocks in at a breezy and laugh-filled 70 minutes. Artistic director Rob Melrose's staging is exactingly precise yet nimble enough to seem almost carefree. That dovetails nicely with Ionesco's text offered here in Melrose's own fresh and astute translation whose surreal linguistic contortions famously grew from the playwright's attempt to learn English from the usual textbooks and their usual absurdities: "You are my husband, Mr. Smith. I am your wife, Mrs. Smith. We live in London. We had braised beef shanks for dinner. I wear my hat outside but not inside." Things like that. I don't know about you, but people who talk this tediously are something of a perverse turn on. And so it was for Ionesco, onetime ESL hopeful, whom it's all too easy to imagine gleefully holed up in language lab, under a sweaty pair of bulky headphones, tittering shamelessly to himself and getting a big idea.
The idea starts with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith of London (David Sinaiko and Paige Rogers). They get a visit from the Martins (Caitlyn Louchard and Donell Hill), who upon being left alone together become blank slates to one another and must painstakingly reacquaint themselves. An upstart maid (Anjali Vashi) and a boyishly enthusiastic fire captain (Derek Fischer) also make memorable contribution to the mix. The plot is about as complex and meaningful as one you might find on Sesame Street, but it's just this lack of semantic sense that makes the play enduringly provoking and anxiously funny.
Cast and director ground the play's giddy, unhinged quality in bright, highly articulate, physically taut comedic performances, set on designer Michael Locher's swank orange-toned living room as if collapsed onto the glossy page of a magazine. Culminating in deftly choreographed mayhem, as all spout non sequiturs and literally bounce off the walls, Cutting Ball's smart showmanship finds just the right visual and gestural corollaries to Ionesco's wonderful linguistic somersaults.
A Body of Water is a 2005 work by American playwright Lee Blessing, presented by Spare Stage. A man named Moss (James Allen Brewer) and a woman named Avis (Holly Silk) confront each other cordially in bathrobes one morning in a remote lakeside house, and proceed to puzzle out who each one is and the exact nature of their relationship. Before long, a young woman named Wren (Halsey Varady) arrives. They suspect she may be their daughter, but who knows? Moss and Avis are wary of appearing completely clueless, and thus resist asking obvious questions. Soon, though, Wren takes dramatic charge of the situation, leveling a series of competing "back stories" at the couple with something between sorrowful exasperation and sadistic delight.
Funny at moments but generally darker and more sinister in tone, A Body of Water decently but somewhat haltingly acted under direction of Stephen Drewes starts out a little like Ionesco and quickly veers toward Harold Pinter. Indeed, Blessing's fraught exploration of memory, of our discrete and linked identities, and of attendant power plays in close quarters are probably too reminiscent of Pinter, since they never really do him justice. Midway through, the play's drama strains under its own premise and an increasingly tedious set of reversals, and begins to founder.
But Spare Stage's venturing into Blessing's Body of Water reveals starkly what makes the humor in Soprano so unnerving and successful: language is the ground beneath our sense of identity. Ionesco's big idea was to make everyday language nonsensical enough to become transparent in both its function and its inadequacy. In both plays, with differing degrees of success, a crisis in the ability to name, and therefore recognize ourselves, points to a miraculous and precarious fact: as persons we may talk the talk, but we walk on water.
THE BALD SOPRANO
Through Dec. 12
Thurs.Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 5 p.m., $15$30
Exit on Tayor, 277 Taylor, SF
A BODY OF WATER
Fri/20-Sat/21, 8 p.m.; Sun/22, 7 p.m., $18-24
Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy, SF