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THEATER REVIEW : Ionesco’s Absurdity Is Today’s Reality

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The absurdist mantle is one that playwright Eugene Ionesco, Romanian by birth, French by choice, pessoptimistic by nature, has worn grudgingly over the years.

Like most writers, he didn’t think in terms of journalistic pigeonholing when he wrote his first wacky, unstuck plays. He just wrote. What he wrote seemed to the rest of the world absurd as in senseless, and shortly thereafter absurd as in brilliant.

Now a “Ionesco Festival II” at Stages, more than a decade after the first Ionesco Festival at that same theater, demonstrates that reality in the ‘90s has caught up full-bore with Absurdity According to the Gospel of St. Eugene.

How curious, how bizarre and what a coincidence.

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Ionesco’s burlesque world of dislocated language has a logic all its own. It is a response to Beckett. A flip side of Kafka. Serious-mirthful, anguished-senseless, savage-grateful and mostly despairing.

To just what extent is pointed up anew in the striking, English-language revival of “The Bald Soprano"--Ionesco’s first play--and “Jack, or the Submission,” now in repertory at Stages. The splintered, deadpan humor echoes the bewildering self-obsessions of an unhinged world that were a lot less discernible in 1950, when “Soprano” first opened.

Stages artistic director Paul Verdier has not only revived this play, but invited its original French director, Nicolas Bataille, to revive it--the same Bataille whose second Paris staging of “Soprano,” in 1957 at the tiny Theatre de la Huchette, has been running there nonstop ever since.

This wigged-out comedy of manners, just over an hour long, tracks a visit between two proper English couples: the Smiths (who seem to know an entire family of Bobby Watsons) and the Martins (who don’t even seem to know each other). For added seasoning, an ill-humored maid (Jean Gilpin) and a dedicated fire chief (David Prather) blithely rough up the edges against the comic grain.

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Bataille’s staging is, as it should be, absolutely straightforward, with Sheelagh Cullen as a high-pitched Mrs. Smith and Neil Elliott as a gruff Mr. Smith, surrealistically greeting the eager and abstracted Helene Lombard (Mrs. Martin) and Steven Opyrchal (Mr. Martin). Offstage, a clock randomly chimes the hours out of sequence, reminding us that all is not at all well.

But if “Soprano” is an “anti-play” (Ionesco’s word), “Jack, or the Submission,” written in roughly the same burst of creativity, is an extrapolation of the genre. In “Jack,” it is emotional isolation that is made flesh--or at least made theater--in a personification of psychological phenomena.

This edition, staged by fellow Romanian Florinel Fatulescu, is as crisp and fresh as paint. The Jack (Clay Wilcox) in this “Jack” is enveloped in a transparent cocoon downstage right. His “submission,” or reluctant compliance with convention, under pressure from a grotesque assortment of relatives banded together to talk him out of there, is not easily won. But once consummated, it is a submission that ensures Jack’s alienation.

This play deserves to be seen in many ways: as the individual duped and quashed by love and society, but surely also as the artist’s desire yet inability to resist the pressures of convention.

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Jack is the author’s alter ego (as are so many characters in Ionesco’s plays), in love with and disappointed by love, as demonstrated by his intricate courtship with triple-nosed Roberta II (Jane Macfie). These warnings return in different guises in different plays, but are always the same fearful, agitated, guilty, brusque and rebellious storm signals. With the same Kafkaesque defeats.

Both pieces are performed with the attention to style one has come to expect at Stages, handsomely complemented by Robert W. Zentis’ sets, lights and costumes. In the case of “Soprano,” they owe much to the aptly macabre kinkiness of Edward Gorey and, in the case of “Jack,” to a loopiness faintly reminiscent of early Picasso.

The latter ignores the more earthbound setting and the masks Ionesco recommends, in favor of garish makeup and the bright colors used by Fatulescu for his staging of Michel De Ghelderode’s “Christopher Columbus” a few months ago. The results work admirably, reminding us that when a play really has something to say, it can sustain and even benefit from such cosmetic accommodation.

* “The Ionesco Festival II,” Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. “The Bald Soprano”: Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 7 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. “Jack, or the Submission”: Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends May 16. $18 for each play; (213) 466-1767. Running time: “Soprano”: 1 hour, 10 minutes; “Jack”: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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‘The Bald Soprano’ Neil Elliott: Mr. Smith Sheelagh Cullen: Mrs. Smith Jean Gilpin: The Maid Helene Lombard: Mrs. Martin Steven Opyrchal: Mr. Martin David Prather: The Fire Chief

‘Jack, or the Submission’ Clay Wilcox: Jack Roc LaFortune: Father Jack Ellen Ratner: Mother Jack Mitchel Evans: Grandfather Jack Robert Read: Grandmother Jack Michele Poitras: Jacqueline Wil Darwin Adams: Father Robert Royce Herron: Mother Robert Jane Macfie Roberta I & II

Producer Sona Lloveras. “Soprano” Director Nicolas Bataille. Assistant director Alexis Cremieux. “Jack” director Florinel Fatulescu. Playwright Eugene Ionesco. Translation Donald M. Allen. Sets, lights, costumes Robert W. Zentis. Composer/assistant director “Jack” Rodica Fatulescu. Production stage manager Sindy Slater.


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