The Column Online



By Eugene Ionesco

Drag Strip Courage

Directors –
The Bald Soprano – Michael Muller
The Lesson – Elijah Muller
Asst. Director – Lindy Benton Muller

Scenic Design – Michael Muller
Costume Design – Michael Muller
Lighting Design – Seth Johnston and Michael Muller
Sound Design – Lindy Benton-Muller
Stage Manager – Olivia Dickerson


Mr. Smith – Seth Johnston
Mrs. Smith – Lindy Benton-Muller
Mr. Martin – Elijah Muller
Mrs. Martin – Britnee Schoville
Mary, the Maid – Lydia Peña
The Fire Chief – Nolan Chapa
The Clock – Michael Muller

The Professor – Michael Muller
The Pupil – Lydia Peña
Marie, The Maid – Lauren Kirkpatrick

Reviewed Performance: 3/17/2018

Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

It was Ionesco night in Fort Worth. As we approached Arts Fifth Avenue in a rainstorm, we anticipated a wild night of theater. Eugene Ionesca writes absurd plays. Father of Theatre of the Absurd he’s called. And these two plays, La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) and La Leçon (The Lesson) are dead in the middle of the aburdist genre. His more popular Rinoceros may provide a clue about these plays.

Michael Muller has explored absurd theater in this area before. It takes courage, but consider this. The longest running continuous theatrical show at a single theater in any genre is the same as this production and these plays are running continually at Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris since 1957! Absurdity can be popular.

When people leave a play, they think about deeper meanings of the story and compare them to their experience. In the best of plays, conclusions are left ambiguous to allow us to find our own meanings. But, if one tries to do this after watching The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, it plays right into Ionesco’s manipulative hands. He would say the meaning in these, his first two plays, is that there is no meaning.

It’s not like we’re surprised by the absurd. Reading the text is nonsensical and illogical and hard to imagine as a good theater experience. But we've seen decades of this kind of commentary. Consider Monte Python, a shining example of ‘pataphysics, which is the form of absurdity Ionesco embraced. Seinfeld gave us a decade of shows about nothing that poked fun at everything. And today? Isn’t the 24-hour news cycle absurd? What about a continuing storyline in Washington? Now that’s really absurd!

However, the power in absurdist drama, which sounds so disjointed in the reading, becomes powerful in performance. Actors can take these texts and turn them into watchable, enjoyable, stories that relate to what we see around us. In the hands of skillful actors, Ionesco’s ideals thrive as a message.

Production elements in absurdist plays are not usually lavish. They are minimalist and chosen carefully to accentuate the genre. In this production, a few simple, stark furniture pieces created the settings without overpowering the stories. A few props helped the actors, but often imaginary props were used. Simple lighting effects provided an atmosphere that accented some brightly colored costumes and bathed the stage in mood colors. Collaboration usually involves most everyone doing some production work. Sets and costumes were designed by Michael Muller. Seth Johnston and Muller combined to create lighting plots. Lindy Benton-Muller created a few simple sound effects. All played characters.

The Bald Soprano

Michael Muller directed The Bald Soprano, which tells a story of two couples you’d think might be acquainted, but you’re never sure, and a dinner party that never materializes. This is interrupted at times by chaotic relations between and within the couples.

Director Michael Muller played The Clock. Yes, a clock. It was him, on-stage, speechless, with a garbage can lid, who called the play to order and clocked out time in the play, although it wasn’t any recognizable time signature. Like most clocks, Muller did not react or respond to anything. He was a dispassionate observer, who occasionally clanged the lid.

Seth Johnston and Lindy Benton-Muller played Mr. And Mrs. Smith, who might be like most long-married couples, with their banal evening banter about the day and periodic fights about nothing in particular. As Mr. Smith, Johnston created a cynical middle-aged man who laments everything his wife says, in polite disagreement. They discuss current events, people they know, stories in the news, and add disjointed commentary. He never looks at her as she talks and seldom looks at her as he talks. It’s not really conversation, but rather overlapping monologues. Benton-Muller’s Mrs. Smith could be a cross between Harriet, of Ozzie & Harriet fame, and Roseann Barr with British sensibilities. She knits even as she calls out the failure of males in general. Not quite a women's libber, she is nonetheless assertive in her arguments. One thing that stood out was that they were formal and polite with each other, almost as if they were arguing in the House of Commons. They may have impuned each other's ideas, but it was done with great respect. And this is as much an acting skill as a textual direction.

The Smith’s maid, Mary, played by Lydia Peña, interrupts to announce the arrival of visitors and then shows in Mr. and Mrs. Martin, played by Elijah Muller and Britnee Schoville. The younger couple enters with the polite conversation guests use, but are accused of being late and this sets a combative tone. The Smiths leave to prepare dinner and while alone, the Martins work through a verbal exploration of how they might know each other, with a comical, absurd timeline of shared events they experienced identically. This exchange, which is probably the funniest scene, gets more ludicrous as they discover they have shared every event on the timeline, including a bed and child. With the polite conversation of total strangers, Muller and Schoville have a perfect comedic timing and straight-faced delivery, and the fact that what they are saying is so unconventional in our experience made the whole bit funnier.

When the Smiths return, the couples argue over whether a door bell ringing means someone is at the door. This gets pretty comical as well. At each ringing, Benton-Muller shuffled to the door and back in clogs that seem to have springs in the heels and so her shuffle had a bounce that had the quality of the iconic Edith Bunker trot. All of the actors maintained perfectly straight faces even as they said these ridiculous things. These were actors committed to their characters' circumstances and argued their views with the seriousness of a heart attack!

This play isn't strictly a comedy in the classical sense, but once you get past the shock of disbelief, these situations are very humorous. In the midst of chaotic absurd situations, we often find the funny moments.

Eventually a doorbell yields a real guest. The Fire Chief, played by Nolan Chapa, arrives to determine if there might be a fire to extinquish, it being rather slow in the fire extinguising business. Dressed in a fireman's uniform of red and black, he looked more like a Ringling Brothers ringmaster, except for his fire helmet. Chapa portrayed a dashing young man with bravado and a touch of melancholy over the lack of fires around town. When roped into arguments about doorbells, which he might have been responsible for, he has various answers that change, but never really resolves the riddle. He entertains the couples with stories, none of which make any sense and which are not funny, other than that they are nonsensical. Lydia Peña enters again as The Maid, in her black and red tunic that seems to match The Fire Chief, but this time Marie becomes a full part of the party and shows a bit of flirtatious sexuality with the Fire Chief. Peña presented a vivacioius young girl who ignores the master/servent relationship and joins the party as an equal partner. Together, this couple shows the view of the youthful generation. This story ends with a cacaphony of slogans that mean nothing to the story, but extend the absurdity beyond the world of the play into familiar sayings we know and accept blindly. This goes on way too long for normal theater, but this is Ionesco's closing salvo to make the audience uncomfortable. He aims for disruptive theater that shocks audiences out of their closed minds.

In all the text, the Fire Chief has the closest thing to a theme, if you need one. "Listen, it’s true … it’s all highly subjective … but it’s my view of the world." Each of us has a worldview and, regardless of how ludicrous it may be, who's to say who's right?

The Lesson

Elijah Muller stepped into the Director’s role for this piece about a professor who tutors students in academic subjects. This usually fails and he becomes unstable and, well, it gets a little gruesome. His maid, who warns him not to get too stressed is left to clean up the messy outcomes.

Michael Muller played The Professor in this story. His aged look, clothed in a typical professorial suit, and his academic inflections made him an ideal professor archetype. With an energetic flourish, Muller created a teacher who relishes the thought that a new student might be teachable and so he gets excited. As The Student proves difficult to teach, frustration slowly escalates into madness. This was a great dramatic arc by Muller and, though the situation is unbelivable, this simmering that turns to seething and finally violence is not far from today's headlines. In time, The Professor addresses his teaching to someone in the distance and Muller's far-away look seemed to be directed at some mythical ideal student. As frustration builds, The Professor gets more unstable and Muller pushed this physically to extremes. All the while, the academic monologue continues in the myst of his polite delivery of knowledge, sometimes directed at himself.

Lydia Peña played The Student, a young girl who's preparing for a Doctoral degree in a few days time – she’s only recently completed primary school! As someone who seems bright initially, The Student appears to The Professor as a promising student. This ideal fails quickly as she shows deft understanding of addition, but can't subtract. Peña starts her character’s arc as an energetic, hopeful, positive student who is hungry for knowledge, but as the lessons devolve into The Professor's chaos, The Student complains of pain and wants to escape. In this, Peña revealed her Student's descent through sagging posture, expressive facial responses, and whining, wavering voice. It's shocking to see how quickly an event can go from ideal to bad, peaceful to violent with the simplest of triggers. Could this be a commentary on social media and political discourse?

Lauren Kirkpatrick played Marie, The Maid, who's both caretaker and co-conspirator with The Professor. It’s she who warns him about certain subjects that trigger his stress. It’s she who cleans the resulting mess. Kirkpatrick’s choice in character was to make her a crochety old lady through voice and posture, though she looks younger. But in her physical affects, she found a few gems that made her interesting to watch, such as an elder stoop and her own shuffle walk, and especially a floppy, free-flowing arm that seemed to reflect The Maid’s view of inevitibility. If this was a normal maid, Kirkpatrick might be more accomodating in the beginning, to show respect for her position. This would add room for to spiral into the eventual anger. Instead, she was sullen and angry throughout. But, of course, this is absurdity, so who’s to say how a normal maid would act? She did have a touching moment with The Professor as Marie exacts a promise from him to improve with the next student, and for a moment, we saw Marie having tender feelings for The Professor.

The Bald Soprano and The Lesson are not mainstream theater. They seldom play here. Muller Productions and DragStrip Courage are to be commended for their collective artistic vision. It's classical theater with an expression that's hard for most people to fathom, but deserving of being seen by new generations. The world Ionesco portrayed in his era is not that different from our own. We may try to ignore the rough edges in events we see or post snide comments on social media. But theater was the social media of Ionesco's day. The sad commentary on life in our 21st Century is that absurdity is becoming so mainstream that it's almost the new normal. These stories might speak to newer audiences.

This is a well-crafted production of a unique genre, with actors who know how to work the magic, though the magic may seem pretty weird to most. But I recommend this to anyone willing to step out of the normal world and enter with an open mind. Who knows what subjective view of the world we might imagine?

Muller Productions & Drag Strip Courage
Arts Fifth Avenue
1628 5th Avenue
Fort Worth, TX 76104

Plays through March 25th

Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 pm ($15)

For information and tickets, visit or call 817-923-9500.