A double shot of absurdist theatre with Maid to Marry and The Leader

Two short plays by Eugène Ionesco at The Theatre On King in downtown Peterborough April 14 and 15

Meg O'Sullivan, Lindsay Unterlander, and Matt Gilbert in The Leader, one of two absurdist plays by avante-gard French playwright Eugène Ionesco presented on the Easter long weekend at The Theatre On King (photo: Andy Carroll)
Meg O'Sullivan, Lindsay Unterlander, and Matt Gilbert in The Leader, one of two absurdist plays by avante-gard French playwright Eugène Ionesco presented on the Easter long weekend at The Theatre On King (photo: Andy Carroll)

Last October, Ryan Kerr of The Theatre On King (TTOK) presented a brilliant production of playwright Eugène Ionesco’s avant-garde masterpiece The Bald Soprano. One of the best shows that TTOK presented in 2016, the strange nonsense play delighted the audience and was filled with big laughs.

This weekend, Ryan revisits Ionesco with a double shot of his short plays, Maid to Marry and The Leader, in a night filled with more screwball weirdness via the weird and wonderful mind of a comedy genius.

One of the greats of the “theatre of the absurd,” Ionesco made an art form of pointing out the banality and ridiculousness of ordinary life and unnecessary talk or description. His plays, although wordy, make little sense despite the fact that the audience can recognize the archetypes and situations depicted on the stage.

The result is brilliant, but hard to put into words. It really is something that you just need to see for yourself.

Although I am not usually fond of the theatre of the absurd, Ionesco’s sense of comedy is so random that I find it ridiculously funny and clever. To put it frankly, while watching Kerr’s latest round of Ionesco, I laughed until I could barely breathe. It really is that funny.

The plots of Maid to Marry and The Leader are so simple to explain that it may seem like there isn’t much to the shows, but what you really need to come and see is the bizarre wordplay and surreal performances by an exceptional cast. What I’m holding back are the punchlines of the shows. Yes, there are punchlines and they are both very funny.

Meg O'Sullivan and Matt Gilbert in Maid to Marry (photo: Andy Carroll)
Meg O’Sullivan and Matt Gilbert in Maid to Marry (photo: Andy Carroll)

Maid to Marry features the talents of Meg O’Sullivan and Matt Gilbert as two people sitting in the park talking about memories of the past and the banality of the present … is it the banality of the past and the memories of the present? Honestly, I’m not sure, nor do I think the couple on stage are either. One audience member said he got it, but I didn’t bother asking him what it all meant. Whether I was lost in the dialogue or not doesn’t matter. It’s just really funny stuff.

Meg O’Sullivan is a woman who wants to marry off her educated daughter and tries to impress Matt Gilbert, a self-indulgent pompous intellect who seems to rant about nothing. The woman agrees with him, although often contradicting the entire discussion. However, the contradictions don’t seem to matter because Gilbert is barely listening. He continues to yammer like a self-indulgent ass. It’s 20 minutes of “mansplaining” turned into an art form.

Although this may not seem like a funny situation, Ionesco is poking fun at both small talk and intellectualism. Matt and Meg really play up their roles: Matt as the pompous fool who loves the sound of his own voice, and Meg as the woman who really doesn’t know what’s going on but delights when she is right.

It’s truly a funny performance by both actors who bring on the comedic gold in every line and every facial expression. But it’s the surprise ending that’s the real kicker to the piece and gets the biggest laughs of all.

The Leader is a much more topical and political show that takes a humorous look at fanaticism and the blind adoration of celebrity and politicians.

Lindsay Unterlander gives a hilarious performance as a cheerleader with her two underlings, played by Meg O’Sullivan and Matt Gilbert, who wait in a secluded spot for “The Leader” to come by. As Meg and Matt hide, Lindsay gives play-by-play commentary of everything The Leader does.

As one would expect in an Ionesco production, that commentary goes from the banal to the bizarre, or perhaps the bizarrely banal. Whatever the case, the audience doesn’t get the time to decide before the cheerleader and her gang are off and running.

Robyn Smith and Dan Smith in The Leader (photo: Andy Carroll)
Robyn Smith and Dan Smith in The Leader (photo: Andy Carroll)

Meanwhile, in a ridiculous nonsensical subplot, two lovers played by Dan Smith and Roybn Smith prance around the park playing a cat-and-mouse game with one another. Why is this happening? Well, that’s anybody’s interpretation — but when their love affair smacks into the middle of the cheerleader’s activities, confused hilarity ensues.

Lindsay Unterlander is brilliant as the head cheerleader. Adorable and obnoxious simultaneously, she gives a fun performance despite having her back to the audience nearly the entire time. Staging like that would make most audiences shudder, for this show it works.

Two questions that remain throughout The Leader is just who the mysterious Leader is and whether he will ever arrive. Again, you’ll need to be in the audience to find out, but what I’ll say is that the build up is well worth it. The end of The Leader is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen at TTOK.

I want to commend each of the players in these two shows. It’s difficult to give shout-outs and go into specifics of the shows without giving away surprises and big laughs, so all I’ll say is that each of the actors bring a lot of mirth and mayhem to the stage in their individual roles. I really am in love with this cast.

TTOK has made me a huge fan of Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist comedies. They are very silly and dialogue heavy, with characters who are utterly ridiculous. For those who are not familiar with the playwright, a solid line could be drawn between Ionesco to Monty Python and to Napoleon Dynamite. It’s that kind of humour.

If that’s the thing that appeals to you, then you do not want to miss this fun night out to TTOK. If it isn’t, then take a chance on it anyway. Brilliantly performed and directed, Maid to Marry and The Leader should be a priority this holiday weekend, between doing the family dinner and eating the chocolate eggs. This show is a true winner.

The Leader and Maid to Marry run for three performances at TTOK in downtown Peterborough: Friday, April 14th at 8 p.m., and Saturday, April 15th at 2 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. Admission is $10 at the door or pay what you can.

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Sam Tweedle
Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post, CNN.com, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.

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