Ionescapade: Theater Review
An anti-totalitarian absurdist comedy first staged in 1974 is revived at the Odyssey Theatre in West L.A.
Not long into the this revival of Ionescapade at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles, an enveloping sense of déjà vu perfumes the atmosphere. One can feel transported to a cellar cabaret space below the streets of Greenwich Village sometime in the mid-’60s, encountering a sub-genre of entertainment so peculiar to that period: the intellectually respectable topical revue.
Adapting forms of popular entertainment such as dance numbers and comedy sketches for more than mindless diversion, the show is gently satirical in a way that's oh so redolent of the social context of Woody Allen before his filmmaking began. It’s a rarefied pleasure, probably more acute for those of a certain age and place of origin who can look past its rather antique ambitions and relish its recollections of a more idealistic creative era.
Research reveals that Ionescapade actually came somewhat late to that party, premiering in New York in 1974 for a ten-day run in a Hell’s Kitchen house and produced by none other than Roger Ailes (with veteran Kermit Bloomgarden). The show had considerably more success in its Odyssey engagement in 1982, winning both LA Weekly and Drama-Logue awards under the hand of director-choreographer William Castellino, who revamped the material for a showcase last year at Off Broadway's York Theatre and has now brought it back to the Odyssey, where it ought to be an audience favorite throughout the summer.
As a polished vaudeville, Ionescapade probably would appeal to the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s sensibilities, although its cherry-picked excerpts, inescapably pastiche, do not represent his vision with appreciable rigor. A central practitioner of what came to be coined “The Theatre of the Absurd” by Martin Esslin in his seminal 1960 essay, Ionesco (Rhinoceros, The Bald Soprano, The Chairs) certainly had a playful streak and relished tweaking pompous avatars of social and political institutions as well as the obtuse French booboisie. But he also had a metaphysical dimension that necessarily gets scanted in the transition to musical expression.
While a few of the episodes are familiar, most are welcome obscurities, several of them choice, such as a matched pair of fragments from one-acts Frenzy for Two and The Peace Conference, each of which skewer the rhetorical mechanics of how angry arguments degenerate into absurdly co-dependent entanglements. The uncredited translations take on a definite American idiom, which amplifies that this is a native concoction of continental origin, bearing little in common with more authentic presentations of the author’s work at local companies such as City Garage or the lamented Unknown Theatre.
Yet as a musical, this makes a smooth cocktail: fruity yet dry, going down easy yet with a kick and a buzz. Songwriter Mildred Kayden achieves an Americanized rendition of Gallic charm and irony that perhaps in the intervening decades has accumulated some barnacles of self-parody, though even that provides some aged allures of its own. Both lyrics and melodies bespeak a bygone sophistication, intelligent and perky, capable of radiating misanthropy with an optimistic sheen. Music director Gerald Sternbach impressively marshals the instrumental trio to create a circus-like aura of excitement. (A recording of the score would be most welcome.)
Like any authentic series of variety acts, the comedy can be variable -- a skit about a pedestrian pedagogue chef goes on way too long after its point has been made, dragging down the early going -- and some numbers inevitably work better than others. A little mime can go a long way, even with such an ingratiating trouper as Alan Abelew incarnating The Writer as a wordless emcee.
But Castellino keeps the action lively, and the estimably talented troupe bulldozes past the lame passages with genuinely engaging singing and dancing. Their abundant and infectious gifts contradict Ionesco’s sour dispositions and allow his bleak view of human nature to masquerade momentarily as life-affirming. In occasional doses, this can be tonic.
And one of the glorious joys of such an intimate revue remains that, without the distortions of microphones, every word can be relished with utter clarity, so that it is indeed the voice that we hear rather than amplification, quite piquant to experience one night after attending the blockbuster-sized Pantages for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Venue: Odyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles (runs through August 11)
Cast: Alan Abelew, Andrew Ableson, Joey D’Auria, Cristina Gerla, Kelly Lester, Tom Lowe, Jennifer Malenke
Director & choreographer: William Castellino
Playwright: Eugene Ionesco; original concept by Robert Allan Ackerman
Music & lyrics: Mildred Kayden
Musical director: Gerald Sternbach
Set designer: David Potts
Lighting designer: Jeremy Pivnick
Costume designer: Mylette Nora
Sound designer: Joe Behm, Josie Griffin-Roosth
Producer: Ron Sossi