Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers Absurdity Plus: A Director/actor Team Caters to Sophisticated Tastes at San Francisco's Cutting Ball

By Avila, Robert | American Theatre, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers Absurdity Plus: A Director/actor Team Caters to Sophisticated Tastes at San Francisco's Cutting Ball


Avila, Robert, American Theatre


IN TIMES LIKE THESE, PERHAPS IT'S NO SURprise that San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater found its 10th anniversary production, a mounting of Eugene Ionesco's first play, such a runaway hit. In contrast to the grim stretch of sidewalk outside in the Tenderloin (where Cutting Ball is resident at the 66-seat Exit on Taylor, a satellite stage of the Exit theatreplex), The Bald Soprano popped out buffed and shiny, a 59-year-old newborn, babbling an arch gibberish that gleefully made mincemeat of meaning. Its vivid two-tone-orange set lent the candied aura of a magazine layout to the home of the play's restively comfortable protagonists, the Smiths (played by Paige Rogers and David Sinaiko). A passerby, straying with boutique bags a few desperate blocks from shimmering Union Square, might have felt equally at home--at least until Ionesco's surreal laughter began its clockwork descent into chaos.

The brisk, tightly "unwound" production came in an equally vivid and fresh-sounding translation from director Rob Melrose, whose actors fluidly rendered the semantic free-for-all of Ionesco's bourgeois breakdown with complimentary physical gestures progressively ajar, akimbo, askew--until all concerned were literally bouncing off the walls. The show broke all attendance records for the company, with the run extending deep into January.

Not bad for Ionesco in the rainy season, never mind the foul economic weather. But then, Cutting Ball's restless founders--the married team of artistic director Melrose and actor and associate artistic director Rogers--have worked hard to cultivate the kind of audience that will eat up the absurd, and come back for more. The company these Minneapolis natives traveled to San Francisco to found--fresh from prestigious graduate programs on the East Coast--is now synonymous with some of the best small theatre the Bay Area has to offer: intelligent, aesthetically sophisticated, challenging in form and content.

"I think we're building on a nice history," acknowledges Melrose. An affable and gracious man circa 40, in shaved head and goatee, his unassuming intellect and mild manner offset an otherwise imposing frame. He greets me at Cutting Ball's modest new offices, just down the street from the theatre, but immediately suggests we smuggle to-go coffees into the spacious second-floor lobby of a nearby four-star hotel. "We're really picking up Christina's mantle," he says, referring to the similarly adventurous programming of Exit Theatre's Christina Augello, who has racked up more than 20 Ionesco productions to her company's credit. Still, when the suggestion that Cutting Ball do more Ionesco came from Paul Walsh (then dramaturg and director of humanities at nearby American Conservatory Theater, where Melrose has served as assistant director to Carey Perloff), Melrose admits he hesitated. "I was a little worried. A lot of people don't like leaving the theatre going, 'What the fuck was that?' It does speak to the audience we've developed that Soprano is our best-attended show ever."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Leasing both the Exit on Taylor and nearby office space were moves the company took in 2008 to put the formerly itinerant theatre on a sounder institutional footing. What Melrose and Rogers hadn't anticipated was a major economic recession, which has cut significantly into their usual sources of financial support and generally made the transition shakier than hoped. Nevertheless, Melrose has reason to be upbeat as he talks about the company's growth. The current operating budget is about $300,000, "and we started with $400," he notes, "so that's pretty good."

That initial budget, while modest, went toward a production every bit as audacious as anything that came afterward. Indeed, Ionesco's absurdist reveries seem like telenovelas alongside Richard Foreman's My Head Was a Sledgehammer, Cutting Ball's 1999 debut. Melrose counts Foreman, the New York-based experimentalist, as a primary influence. …

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