LETTERS TO EDITOR
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A CurtainUp Review
The Ionesco Festival: The Opening Volley
by Les Gutman
"The Leader" and Improvisation, "The Duel" and The Viscount and "Maid to Marry" and Rhinoceros
Over the next few months, New York will be oozing with Ionesco. Under the auspices of Untitled Theater Company #61, and with the collaboration of twenty-eight other theater companies, the entire Ionesco canon will be presented around town. It is an ambitious undertaking, one that apparently has never been undertaken before. Each (substantially) full-length production is paired with a "short" curtain-raiser, the latter rotated for the most part. There are also readings and a film series.
The plays assembled in this review are a good introduction to what the festival has in store. Seen on a single (long) evening because they had been conveniently scheduled to follow one another, they not only permit one to begin distilling the essence of Ionesco but also point up the strengths and shortcomings of the festival's approach. The brainchild of the project is Untitled's artistic director, Edward Einhorn, whose affection for Ionesco dates from an early age. He is also designated as the festival's curator, although the term can't be read to connote any editorial judgment, since we are offered the full dose of his subject without any separation of wheat from chaff.
Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. Among the three principal shows collected here, one (Rhinoceros) is of course well-known and frequently read and produced; the other two are obscure. Yet the audience at the former was full, while both of the others were extremely sparsely attended. Is the festival's mission of fleshing out the playwright's body of work achieved if the footnotes get lost in the shuffle? It's perhaps an unanswerable question, but one has to wonder if the aim might not have been better achieved by a more judicious selection process that might lead audiences down a path rather than leaving them lost in an overloaded menu.
Quickly, one realizes that the all-inclusiveness dictates a lack of quality control. Ionesco's masterpieces (Rhinoceros included) naturally are well worth our time. Some of his less-well-known (or unknown) works are also very much worthy of our attention. But there is also much that neither illuminates the playwright nor nurtures the audience, and the festival's concept seems increasingly less admirable as we sit through a few of these. Not unexpectedly, the quantity of work on display also makes it difficult to maintain a uniformly high level of performance.
Improvisation provides a valuable starting point for this exploration. In it, the playwright himself (Roland Johnson) is the center of attention. While attempting to write a play (this play), his quiet is interrupted by a procession of academic critics, all named Bartholomeus (John Hagan, Calvin Wynter and Michael Connolly). It's an indictment of the herd instinct, a rumination on the topic of art vs. science, likely a comment on Ionesco's very real arguments with Kenneth Tynan and most of all a revelation of the forces, internal and external, that came into play in forging this independent, iconoclastic writer. It takes his cleaning woman to straighten things out. Johnson rolls with the punches quite nicely, veering from stubborn to compliant as he reacts to his critics; they are a mixed bag.
In Improvisation, Ionesco reluctantly agrees to read from an unfinished play; in The Viscount, we are presented with a real one he never completed. It shows. (Not surprisingly, there is no record it has been performed previously.) Although it contains some priceless wordplay between three courtiers (Gerald Marsini, Rasheed Hinds and Dan Maccarone) that's enough fun to justify a viewing, the rest of the play doesn't add up to much as they are visited by a series of people with a lot and yet very little to say. Ian W. Hill has adopted a broad zaniness (the inspirations here are said to be the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Spike Jones and Hellzapoppin') that doesn't succeed at sufficiently shielding the thin reed on which it is based. The Viscount would have been far more satisfying had its wordgames been lifted and presented as a "short".
No mere highlight can convey the cumulative force of Rhinoceros. Rooted in his own reaction to the rise of Nazism in Europe, Ionesco's cautionary work makes the battle of one man, Berenger (Andrew Price), against the prevailing tide both deeply personal and universally meaningful. It's a thinly-veiled allegory in which he sees townspeople, his co-workers and then his friend, Jean (Peter Brown) and love, Daisy (Celia Montgomery) succumb to the trend: they all become rhinoceroses as he staunchly resists giving up on humanity.
Performances are generally quite good, with Price holding his own throughout. Brown also impresses as Jean. There is significant doubling of the smaller roles in this production, and all acquit themselves well; David Hilder as the logician and as Dudard especially well. Einstein's staging is straightforward and attentive, making good use of the venue's features. Sound design here is especially important and well handled, as are costumes and lighting. The sets of Jennifer Collins, which rely heavily on some screens that are reärranged for different scenes, are fine. The biggest complaint has to do with timing. Einstein's staging at times seems slow and a bit too deliberate. He also has seen fit to retain two intermissions which, together with other pauses and the curtain raiser, extend the evening to a very long three hours. One might have hoped for a bit more attention to the clock.
There's plenty more to see in this festival, and readers are encouraged to pick carefully and experience some of the rarities on display.