By Bob Shuman
Certain dramatists really can imprint their visions enough on audiences so that, after a play is over, the world seems reorganized. Ibsen, in Peer Gynt, as directed by Ingmar Bergman, could do this and so can Beckett, who retreats to isolated settings and characters. In Ionesco Suite from the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, which played at BAM Fisher, from to January 23-26, the French playwright, whom The New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner noted, started in Paris in the mid-‘50s, “as an unknown, penniless Romanian in the avant-garde little theatres” and was , ultimately seen at the Comédie-Français and internationally, reflects society in a circus mirror, or as the dramatist would accede, a puppet show (although some of his characters don’t want to be puppets!). Flanner, who wrote about Ionesco’s Hunger and Thirst in Paris, in the ‘60s, found his work “stimulating” but “addling,” although adherents insist that Ionesco’s ouvre accurately depicts the human
condition. A first look at the work, when compared to conventional American or movie realism, can seem an unnecessary impropriety (Ionesco felt “our existence is unimaginable, unthinkable,” but his Absurdism helps define American downtown theatre, as well as many American playwrights, who have been influenced by him (Arthur Kopit, John Guare, Christopher Durang, Tina Howe, David Ives, Albert Innaurato, and more). The dramatist has not ascended to the level of Beckett (whom Ionesco considered “a great man”), which might have to do with his not writing in English (actually, the Tony Award-winning Irish director Garry Hynes may have made her recent production of Waiting for Godot more accessible by infusing it with Ionesco’s cartoonishness). Presenting selections from Ionesco pieces is not a new idea, though–many of the plays are short and traditionally played together, such as The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, and aficionados will recall a 1974 musical called Ionescopade, revived in 2012 by the York Theatre Company, also an anthology of the playwright’s work. Ionesco Suite, however, lets modern theatregoers see a French production (with English surtitles) of his work—under the direction of Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who, as an experiment, “just sat listening . . . taking pleasure in rediscovering each one (of the pieces), letting [himself] be fascinated. . . .”
The first of the five texts in Ionesco Suite is Jack, or the Submission, where a young man, in a child’s birthday hat, is called, by his family, “ungrateful,” a monster,” and “not worthy of his ancestors” (his sister, in red pigtails, is played by a man, gliding around the stage kneeling on a dolley). Nevertheless this grave disappointment, “disowned,” can challenge Beckett’s despairing existentialism. The costumes and makeup (by Fanny Brouse and Catherine Nicholas, respectively, in dark colors, with dangerous splashes of red or purple, are ghoulish, mime white. The early pacing is intentionally slow, to purposefully allow for acceleration throughout the evening, in a production which is masterfully paced), and the actors, five men and two women: Charles-Roger Bour, Jauris Casanova, Sandra Faure, Sarah Karbasnikoff, Stephan Krähenbühl, Walter N’Guyen, and Gérald Maillet) may deal directly with those in the audience. The young man, awaiting his cake, observes the world in disbelief: “Nothing else to do.” The theatre even begins reeking of urine.
Brooklyn, NY – 23 January 2019. Walter N’Guyen (seated) and Charles-Roger Bour in the final rehearsal prior to the New York premiere of Director Emanuel Demarcy-Mota’s Ionesco Suite at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space.
Ionesco and Beckett have also both been said to show the breakdown and failure of language and communication. In watching Ionesco Suite, however, primarily in Delirium for Two and The Bald Soprano (the fifth play in the evening is Conversation and French Speech Exercises) the dramatist seems to be commenting on the failure of logic. Ionesco, for instance, gives us a proof that a turtle and snail are the same animal and provides a syllogism for discovering who must be ringing a doorbell (and then disappearing when a front door is opened). Demarcy-Mota arranges the evening around social conventions associated with meals—besides a birthday, a wedding, and family meals also become focal points, set at a long banquet table, while his characters demand to be defined, sometimes even seeming to be deliver Yogi-isms: “The children my age were also little.” The Lesson is played exceptionally well in this production, between two men, one as a young girl (now in a blonde wig) who can add, but not subtract, and her sadistic instructor. Ionesco, who lied in occupied France during World War II, blamed “demi-intellectuals” for the rise of Nazism, fascism, and the Left (those who subscribe to sloganeering): “Writers, journalists, professors, and the like” are his rhinoceroses.
Another playwright concerned with “mass mind” is Amir Nizar Zuabi, whose Grey Rock examines the effect of occupation on the lives of contemporary Palestinians. Like Ionesco, or perhaps because of him, Zuabi, who also directed the play, finds his way to absurdism, as his characters work to launch a rocket to the moon. The society he characterizes is consumerist, and not politically violent, which may challenge assumptions about the Occupied Palestinian Territory—the lives are mundance, “only able to react to the present.” Then an Ionescian-like line helps the characters find their bearings: “Stop thinking like a clerk; like a victim!” Grey Rock, commissioned by Remote Theater Project, was presented at La MaMa from January 3-7 and was played with determination by its Palestinian actors: Khalifa Natour, Ivan Kevork Azazian, Fida Zaidan, Alaa Shehada, and Motaz Malhis. The creative team included Tal Yarden (set & video design) and Nicole Pearce (lighting design). They ask us to dream, use our curiosity and imagination, for even in America (a land which helped inspire Grey Rock), it has taken almost fifty years to decide to walk on the lunar surface again.
Ionesco said that theatre “must be simplified and grotesque” and that “comedy is more tragic than tragedy.” Perhaps he would agree that when correctly staged, Ionescian writing can scramble the brain—and produce an “alternative fact”; as an instance, take trying to find the number 2 train at the Atlantic Avenue/ Barclays Center station after watching Ionesco Suite at BAM. The scene is a cold night, the day the Shutdown has ended. The feeling one gets is vertigo.
Visit: BAM Fisher
Photos: ‘Grey Rock’: Carlos Cardona; ‘Ionesco Suite’: BAM
© 2019 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.