Theatre UNB is concluding the semester for their Drama 2173 class with ‘Cats, Cockatoos, and Caca,’ a double-feature of plays by Eugene Ionesco, the Romanian-French playwright best known for his pioneering work in the genre of the Theatre of the Absurd. Focusing on the surreal, the inexplicable, and the outrageous, director Len Falkenstein selected two of Ionesco’s early works, ‘Jack, or the Submission‘ and ‘The Bald Soprano,’ with the stated intent of challenging the actors’ skills and encouraging growth.
‘Jack, or the Submission’ tells the story of a young man, Jack (Lucas Tapley), who is at conflict with his family, having rejected their values and broken their hearts. After silently enduring a series of increasingly baffling pleas and lectures from his family, Jack finally stands up for himself and addresses the heart of the matter and the cause for all of the drama; much to his family’s despair, he does not like hash-brown potatoes.
This potato-based conflict is somehow resolved though, just in time for a new issue to arise as Jack’s parents decide it is time to marry him off. Jack is presented with his prospective bride-to-be, Roberta (Veronica Howe), but rejects her for only having two noses when he desires a wife with three, prompting a spat between the two families. Roberta is promptly replaced with her nearly identical sister of the same name, though further rejections due to her being too pretty lead to increasingly nonsensical arguments until the two are promptly married and left to each other’s devices.
At its core, ‘Jack, or the Submission’ is a play that rejects the core tenants of conventional theatre, with the bulk of the lines consisting of nonsense words and heavy-handed declarations of bizarre impossibilities and non-sequitors. As an example of the play’s general feel, the final scene between Jack and Roberta features a lengthy, erotic description of a horse burning alive, and ultimately ends with the two of them replacing all of their spoken words with the word ‘cat,’ after which the rest of the cast begins crawling around them and meowing.
In spite of the script’s fast-and-loose rigmarole of nothingness, the cast’s talents were able to shine through. Tapley’s performance as Jack covered a wide spectrum of different personalities as he is required to completely reinvent his character at a moment’s notice, from bratty indifference to foolhardy lovesickness, though he manages to maintain a level of consistency throughout. While Howe’s Roberta was a much clearer-cut character, presenting her as such was surely no easy feat. When her character finally graduated from setpiece to a speaking role, she managed to act authentic in her attempts to win over Jack, even though the words she spoke to him were nonsense.
Beyond the two leads, the most notable performances were from Thomas Lapointe and Danica Smith in their roles as Roberta’s parents, with Smith’s flashy saleslady schtick and Lapointe’s unsettling overenthusiasm in his every movement combining to provide the exact unearthly, jarring feeling that Theatre of the Absurd strives for. Additional praise is due for Chelsea Hebert and William MacKnight, whose portrayal of Jack’s grandparents was a source of thoroughly entertaining physical comedy in the background throughout much of the play.
The second play, ‘The Bald Soprano,’ was a far more enjoyable piece, and is one of Ionesco’s most highly regarded works. Clever and comedic, it draws heavily on wordplay and rhetoric to bring life to absurdity. Inspired by Ionesco’s experiences learning English by copying basic sentences, the characters of ‘The Bald Soprano’ speak almost exclusively in simple declarative statements in polite conversation during a quaint suburban dinner party. The initial statements they make are all technically true, but are led astray by misapplied truisms and fallacies and are taken down paths of twisted logic until the end result no longer reflects anything even remotely close to reality. An early conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Smith (William MacKnight and Sarah Dubois) comes to the conclusion that any doctor who outlives his patient is a quack, as a captain must go down with his ship, while later they argue as to whether or not a ringing doorbell is proof that someone is there or no one is. The wit and humour make ‘The Bald Soprano’ quite enjoyable. Though true to the Theatre of the Absurd, the play still devolves into shocking non-sequators and unintelligible chaos by the end.
‘The Bald Soprano’ has a significantly smaller cast, though they all carry their weight to provide some compelling performances. MacKnight’s portrayal of Mr. Smith was a personal favourite, with his deadpan delivery of increasingly absurd lines and his rigid physicality making him seem like a bourgeois robot, fitting in perfectly with the otherworldly madness of Ionesco’s writing. Mrs. Smith (Sarah Dubois) was an excellent counter to her husband, feeling more relaxed and natural, seemingly at peace with the chaos surrounding her to equally baffling effect. This is even more noteworthy when considering this is Dubois’ first on-stage performance.
The Smith’s dinner guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Thomas Lapointe and Alexe LaPointe) were also quite enjoyable as an on-stage pair, playing off each other’s enthusiasm and doubt as the two built up an energy of clueless excitement that made their interactions quite endearing. Mary (Maria Ingrahm), the Smith’s maid, played a comparably smaller role, but managed to perfectly embody the madness of the play, flipping between radical emotional extremes in seconds—sometimes a perplexing, all-knowing figure and sometimes just a raving lunatic. In another fairly minor yet memorable role, Kyle Bech stole the stage as the Fire Chief, seeming larger-than-life with a campy overconfidence, while revealing vulnerable insecurity the moment he was challenged.
Despite the strange choices in plays, ‘Cats, Cockatoos, and Caca’ definitely succeeded in its stated goal of challenging the actors to push themselves to develop. While audiences may struggle to follow Ionesco’s bizarre works, they cannot deny that the cast rose to the challenge and gave it their all. With some stellar performances and more than a few legitimate laughs nestled in amongst the insanity, ‘Cats, Cockatoos, and Caca’ may be a rewarding show for audiences willing to venture into the Theatre of the Absurd.
‘Cats, Cockatoo, and Caca’ will be showing at Memorial Hall on UNB campus from November 30th to December 2nd at 7:30 PM, with admission at the door.