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A CurtainUp Review
Ionescopade, A Musical Vaudeville
Even as it mercilessly cuts, slices and dices portions of the canon and also includes tantalizing excerpts from Ionesco’s journals, Ionescopade holds up surprisingly well as an audacious attempt to capture the essence of the playwright who was notable during the mid 20th century for a nutty brand of surrealism defined as Theater of the Absurd.
With a sparking, quirkily melodic score by Mildred Kayden (shades of Jacques Brel), as whimsically orchestrated and played by a heavy-on-the-clinking/clunking three-piece band (shades of Spike Jones), this fast-paced two-hour vaudeville (although unnecessarily divided into two acts) could be characterized as a rampaging romp. The audience is whisked through a thorny thicket of Ionesco’s more-often-than-not haunting themes: Personal and collective isolation and the inconsequentiality and gullibility of mankind.
It may take a little extra time for some audience members to become attuned to Ionesco’s existential nihilism for example, “The Best is Yet to Be,” in which one by one the singers leave the stage as they realize it may not be so. . . or to his flair for perversity with “Josette,” in which an impassioned David Edwards sings of his love for a woman with three breasts. Certainly Kaden’s lyrics (“nothing is to come. . .yet everything is possible") are quite admirably in synch with the playwright’s message. That Ionescopade turns out to be more fun that you might expect is due to the instincts and inventions of director and choreographer Bill Castellino and the company of seven, each collectively knowing when to lay the shtick on thick and when to withdraw to make a message stand out. Samuel Cohen is ingratiating as the baggy-pants “Writer” who serves as a conduit and willing participant in the various skits.
There appears to be no particular order or even a prescribed disorder to the plays, playlets and poetry that proceed with break-neck speed across the small stage and within James Morgan’s vintage music hall setting, notable for its splintered red frame and its images of Ionesco. Trying to decipher the meaning of every skit, would be pointless except that the underlying and pervasive idea that we are living in a world gone mad is evident, and made even more evident by the awesome collection of giddily clownish costumes designed by Nicole Wee. They conspire as much as anything in the show to become inhabitants of Ionesco’s outré oeuvre.
In no particular order of laugh-aloud preference, I found “The Cooking Lesson” especially funny considering our current obsession with TV cooking shows. In it, the chef, played by David Edwards, goes into ridiculous detail to show how to boil water, submerge and then serve an egg. “The Leader” hits home hard as it shows citizens blindly adoring every move of a politico (as in petting a hedgehog and spitting) who turns out to have no head. “The Peace Conference” is a riotous example of uniformed generals arguing over who is more “obstinate.” Susan J. Jacks is a hoot as the Bald Soprano and as a Prima Ballerina. The best skit is “The Bobby Watson Family” in which the entire company, each one named Bobby Watson, appear as a singing and dancing family of vaudevillians, all attired in hilariously complementary but different black and white getups.
Paul Binotto’s mellow voice is exactly what the Brel-inspired sentiments of “Madeleine” needed to put it over. Tina Stafford captures the increasing intensity and horror of “Fire” (“the whole world caught fire.”) Nancy Anderson, the pert and pretty blonde who has lent her charm to many musicals (notably Yank which premiered at the York Theater and may land on Broadway one of these days) gets a chance to display her many charms as a chorus girl, an Apache Dancer, as well as singing the satiric “Ginger Wildcat,” and the poignant waltz “Flying.” Leo Ash Evens’s high-spirited dancing and clowning punches up every scene in which he appeared.
Although the vogue for Ionesco’s plays initially lasted only a few decades, we have recently experienced a renewal of interest in his plays. Exit the King was successfully revived on Broadway in 2009 (review). The Bald Soprano, which recently had a well-received run at the Pearl Theater (review), is regularly revived in regional theaters, as are The Chairs and Rhinoceros. While Ionescopade is not likely to win many new converts to the Ionesco school of the ridiculous, this rollicking production will likely win new fans for the York Theater Company and its mission to rediscover worthy and possibly forgotten Off Broadway musicals.
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