Ionescopade: A Musical Vaudeville @ Odyssey Theatre

Joey D'Auria, Alan Abelew and Kelly Lester.(Courtesy of Enci Box)
Joey D’Auria, Alan Abelew and Kelly Lester.
(Courtesy of Enci Box)

You will find Eugène Ionesco, the great Romanian playwright, is in perfect harmony with himself at the Odyssey Theatre. “Ionescopade” treats the life and works of Ionesco, one of the towering talents in the realm of Theatre of the Absurd, to a vaudevillian musical refitting. It is a partnership that ranks right up there with Bogart and Bacall, Sears and Roebuck, Sacco and Vanzetti, tuna and fish.

Most American audiences know Ionesco best for “Rhinocèros”, his whimsical and profound fable from Hell on the dangers and seduction of mass movements or the outlandish paronomastic romp of non sequiturs “The Bald Soprano”.

Ionescopade” envisaged by Robert Allan Ackerman with music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden offers a golden opportunity to experience a sampler tray of Ionesco’s other works in small bit sized pieces that you are sure to find both extremely tasty and remarkably satisfying.

If, on the other hand, you’re an aficionado of Ionesco and are well versed in his work, which compressed the human experience down to the absurd kernel at its core while somehow retaining that essence of nobility humanity is capable of, then here’s a chance to take a pratfall down memory lane. There are winks here and there, a man standing with a rhino horn protruding from his head, a sparkling little ditty performed by the Bobby Watson Family Singers, featuring the father, mother, brothers and sisters all named Bobby Watson, who are oft mentioned but never seen in “The Bald Soprano”. If neither of these references have any resonance with you, don’t sweat it. In Theatre of the Absurd being clueless only adds to the fun.

The evening is loaded with rare, seldom produced gems of Ionesco’s. But Ackerman and Kayden delved deeper still in having plumbed Ionesco’s journals and setting excerpts to music.

As usual the Odyssey has collected a cluster of talent for their cast. Alan Abelew, one of the stalwarts of the Odyssey, serves as Ionesco’s doppelganger, who, like Alice’s white rabbit, entices us to follow him down the rabbit hole to the adventures that await.

The evening offers a scatter gun full of highpoints. Tom Lowe gives a titanium solid performance throughout and is a high kicking joy to boot. Andrew Ableson brings a crooner’s skill to the most melodious of the evening’s tune “Madeleine” based on a passage from Ionesco’s journals. Later in the evening he is featured in a scene from Ionesco’s second full-length play, “The Killer”, which is perhaps his most Kafkaesque work and is also noteworthy for the first appearance of Bèrenger in his plays. Bèrenger, who, like Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, would serve as the Ionesco’s autobiographical everyman in a number of his works, most notably “Rhinocèros” and “Exit the King”. But in no other work do we witness Bèrenger so anguished by the senseless brutality of life as in this 1959 work, which Ableson embraces with a heart breaking conviction.

Ionesco’s distain and distrust of politics and politicians comes to the forefront in two short one acts “The Leader” and “The Peace Conference” displaying the crystal sharp comic timing of Joey D’Auria and Kelly Lester. Lester also wobbles out a terrific number as Mother Peep, another character taken from “The Killer”. Jennifer Malenke and Cristina Gerla round out the cast and serve up sterling moments, Malenke singing “Fire” inspired by “The Bald Soprano”, and Gerla giving voice to a tune that takes its cue from “Exit the King”. Bill Castellino directs and choreographs the evening, working the polish of the show to a brilliance that almost demands sunglasses. All in all, if you know lonesco or you don’t, this is an evening of mirth and music delivered by a top notch cast.

I dare you not to have a good time.

And as you’re walking from the theater humming the tunes, and chuckling at the capers, you’ll probably suddenly be hit by the nagging sense that underneath the melodies and merriment there was something else. Something that will keep you thinking about what you saw, a sense that on that stage was something important for you to understand. Very important.

And that is the genius of Ionesco.