17 July 2013

Three Ionesco Plays (2004)

[Last 2 July, I published Kirk Woodward’s “Eugene Ionesco,” a consideration of the Absurdist playwright that’s based on Kirk's notes from a lecture given by the writer in 1988.  In the profile, Kirk mentions that I had previously posted a report on a performance of Ionesco’s best-known play, Rhinoceros, on ROT (15 October 2012).  Among my pre-ROT archives, I also have reports on three of his better-known one-acts, icons of the Theater of the absurd.  Two of the plays, The Bald Soprano (Ionesco’s first play, 1950) and The Lesson (1951), were presented on a single bill by the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea from 19 September to 17 October 2004.  The third, The Chairs (1952), was staged as part of the 2004 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene between 1 and 4 December 2004.  As you’ll read, the two productions, which I happened to see six weeks apart during the fall of 2004, differed greatly in success in my estimation.  ~Rick]
The Bald Soprano & The Lesson
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
4 October 2004

Diana Multare, my frequent theater partner, and I decided to subscribe this year to the Atlantic Theater Company (which is in Chelsea only a few blocks from my apartment) and their first production is a two-play bill of Ionesco one-acts, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson.  The texts are a new translation by playwright Tina Howe (Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances, Pride’s Crossing) and the director was Carl Forsman, the artistic director of an Off-Off-Broadway company called the Keen Company.  (I saw a production of their revival of P. G. Wodehouse’s 1927 comedy, Good Morning, Bill, which Forsman directed also.  It was an amusing bit of fluff—fun but meaningless.  Well enough done, though.)  [I’ve subsequently seen two shows directed by Forsman, both for the Keen Company at the Harold Clurman Theatre and both reported on ROT: Heroes by Gérald Sibleyras (26 March 2009) and Tina Howe’s Painting Churches (14 April 2012).]

Overall, this is probably the best Ionesco production I’ve seen [until the Rhinoceros noted above], and certainly the best work of the Atlantic Theater I’ve seen over the several years I’ve gone there on and off.  Ionesco’s not for everyone—or, maybe, not even most people—so the plays may not appeal to one and all, but the presentation is excellent.  (The Lesson is particularly grim.  I think Ionesco does call it a comedy—but that doesn’t keep it from being grim.)  The acting is top-notch all around, but the ensemble work of Soprano and the individual performance of Steven Skybell as the Professor in The Lesson are really examples for acting students.  I imagine that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but the work is that good here.  Clean, clear, solid—all the things that make good lessons for students while at the same time being wonderful experiences for an audience.  It’s like a painting that’s a perfect example of a particular style and at the same time is stunning, moving, and evocative piece of art.  (The nice thing here for a class is that there’s a wonderful example of an ensemble working together to produce delightful group work and another of a single performance that stands out without being selfish.)

(One of the Soprano ensemble is Michael Countryman, who plays Mr. Smith.  I’ve seen him many times over the years, and he’s a character actor who always does excellent work.  He’s one of those actors who works all the time and is always good, but has never gotten famous outside the business—though he used to do many, many commercials at one point several years ago.  Whatever he’s done, I’ve noticed him.  Mrs. Smith is Jan Maxwell, the wife of a long-time actor friend of mine, Rob Lunney—formerly Rob Emmet.  She’s done quite a lot of high-profile work, including Broadway and TV, but Rob was in my productions of both The Gift—he was John Wilkes Booth—and Comes the Happy Hour!—he was the lead, the young patient.  Rob also acted with me in two shows at the Process Studio: Macbeth and Much Ado.  I always felt he deserved a better career.)

The ensemble work in Soprano is rendered even better when you consider how hard it must be to maintain the kind of connection this cast manages with dialogue that is so completely absurd.  I’m sure most theater people know the text of Soprano at least a little—haven’t we all read it at one time or another?—so they probably remember that most lines are non-sequiturs, and even the ones that aren’t are nearly illogical outside the world of the play.  Plus, the characters’ relationships keep shifting unpredictably, so the actors not only have to remember cues pretty much technically, but they have to reestablish their connections to one another every few lines without ever showing that they’ve shifted gears.  I’d guess that the cast, regardless of how they were trained, must all have to do this play entirely technically, but they make it seem as if they are living in a real world.  Not the same as our real world, but real in their diegetic existence.  (It starts, of course, with the famous 17 clock chimes to which Mrs. Smith responds by saying, quite matter-of-factly, “Oh, it’s nine o’clock.”  Doesn’t everyone’s clock chime 17 times for 9 o’clock?)  When the Martins (Robert Stanton and Seana Kofoed) arrive, and the relationship not only between the two couples (and even between Mr. and Mrs. Martin) but with the constantly shifting “facts” of the scene (they’ve eaten, they haven’t eaten; they know one another, they don’t know one another) careers from one set of truths to another, the quality of the ensemble acting really starts to show.  I think this was a preview performance—there was still an occasional tentativeness with some lines—and I kept waiting for it all to break down, even if only for a second.  But it never did.  Of course, a great deal of this feat is down to the director—first of all, for casting these actors to start with.

The set (by Loy Arcenas, who designed both sets) for Soprano was particularly . . . well, absurd, I guess.  It was, of course, the Smiths’ living room, but the wallpaper was flowered, the rug was flowered, and the upholstery was flowered.  But all different flower patterns.  It was like the Queer Eye guys went a little nuts!

I must also compliment Tina Howe on her translations—they were clear and direct without being either stiff or false to the originals.  She had a little insert in the program in which she writes about the difficulties with translation and I skimmed it, but I already know that translating plays, especially French plays for some reason, is always a holding action.  You have a choice of staying true to the original’s language and vocabulary, or trying to judge the author’s intent and being freer with the English to get there.  The first gets stiff and artificial, better for reading off the page than acting on the stage; the second strays from the original’s feel and style and can sound too colloquial and idiomatic.  Howe seemed to have managed to tread a line here, making the text sound both conversational in English (that’s probably not the best word for this dynamic) and artificial, in the sense that Ionesco was deliberately writing artificial French.  (This is esp. true in Soprano because his inspiration was the French and English of a phrase book.)  Samuel Beckett didn’t have this problem so much because he not only did his own translations from French to English, but he pretty much rewrote his plays for the English versions.  They were really two originals—one French and one English; Waiting for Godot, for instance, is a different play from En attendant Godot and there are things in one version that aren’t in the other.  (I compared them once.)  Howe only very occasionally writes a line that sounds a little too much like 21st-century American, and when she does, it sticks out a bit—but it’s not often enough to be harmful.

After the universal disappointments of the 2003-04 theater season in New York City, this was a terrific season-starter.  I was seriously beginning to fear that I had become one of those theatergoers who never likes anything—that maybe the season wasn’t so bad last year, that it was just me.  I hope this proves it isn’t. 

I’ll note here that New York Times critic Charles Isherwood had complaints about both Howe’s texts and the production’s acting.  [Isherwood’s notice is on-line at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/20/theater/reviews/20bald.html.]  He felt the translations were a little too contemporary, but I only felt that in passing once or twice, and only because of a word or expression now and then.  The reviewer also felt, particularly in Soprano, that the actors had gotten too psychologically embedded in their roles and situations, too much like Stanislavsky Realism.  I don’t agree, however; I think he was wrong (or had seen an earlier preview or something).

*  *  *  *
The Chairs
Pick Up Performance Company (David Gordon)
Harvey Theater, BAM
13 December 2004
[The report on The Chairs below was part of a longer one that also covered the performance of Woody Allen’s A Second Hand Memory at ATC (22 November 2004-23 January 2005).  For this publication on ROT, I’ve excised the discussion of the other production, though some references still remain.]

I saw two shows over the past two weeks, and I have confirmed two things from the experiences—one bad and one . . . well, interesting.

First, the bad:  The 2004-05 season, after a promising start with the two Ionescos at the Atlantic [coincidentally, published above], has gone downhill precipitously.  The John Jesurun FAUST/How I Rose (Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, 16-20 November 2004) may have been the low point, but nothing has been very good even by contrast.  (The German Nora, the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz Berlin’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Doll House at the Harvey, 9-13 November, was, at least, interesting, but there were a lot of serious problems with that, too.)  If the criterion is whether or not I would have been sorry not to have seen the play, then none of the performances since the Ionescos has measured up. 

The second thing I’ve discovered is that Charles Isherwood has been consistently writing reviews of the plays I’ve seen that almost exactly express my opinion.  (His reviews, that is, not the plays.)  If I’ve disagreed with his review of a show now and then at all, it’s been over a minor point (as in this last show) or over his harshness or generosity in stating his opinion on one point or another.  What I mean by this latter is that he and I may agree on some aspect of the performance, but he’ll say it more or less forcefully than I would have.  I’m beginning to find this very strange.  Like I said in a recent message, maybe I ought to give up writing my own reports and just copy Isherwood’s reviews—maybe with a few choice comments.  [Veteran ROTters will know that this hasn’t continued to hold true quite so consistently in more recent seasons.]

With respect to this last remark, I really ought to just download Isherwood’s review of The Chairs I saw at BAM Friday two weeks ago [posted on the New York Times’ website at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/03/theater/reviews/03chai.html].  Like the Jesurun, I have no idea what this performance was all about.  Like Jesurun’s FAUST, it wasn’t just a translation of Ionesco and a straightforward attempt to stage his play (if ‘straightforward’ is even a concept you can use vis à vis Ionesco—but leave that aside).  It was another personal take, an idiosyncratic adaptation.  David Gordon—of whom I’d never heard before, but who is apparently known—is primarily a choreographer and he has a thing for chairs, especially metal folding chairs.  Several of his dance and movement pieces have featured chairs as the principal—even only—prop and set piece.  I can’t begin to tell you why Gordon has this obsession or what it means in terms of his performances—film of bits of several of which were featured as a sort of prologue to The Chairs—but I suppose it explains in part why he glommed onto this play.  What he thinks Ionesco’s play means, or what he tried to make it mean, was undecipherable to me.  This is the second play I’ve seen this season which I can’t even begin to interpret—the other being Jesurun’s FAUST—which makes it hard to report on them. 

I can sum up my experience with this performance—ironically by quoting Isherwood: it was “self-indulgent and largely ineffective.”  I missed the Théâtre de Complicité’s recent production here (John Golden Theatre, 1 April-13 June 1998) which was so well received, and Isherwood compares it to Gordon’s version to the detriment of the latter.  I can’t tell you what Gordon was up to, but I can tell you that he removed all the darkness and bleakness as he almost giddily careened around the stage moving the chairs from one configuration to another, carrying them, climbing on them, balancing on the back of one, ramming them into one another, shoving them in whole rows about the stage, as he rambled versions of Ionesco’s words almost gleefully at times.  (By the second half of the performance, Gordon was handed pages of the “script” from which he “read” his lines— Isherwood thought he was really reading and hadn’t learned the lines, but I’m not convinced that was so—and then tossed the pages on the stage, which ended up littered with pieces of paper.  I don’t know what this meant.)  I had trouble focusing on what was going on a lot of the time, so I fazed in and out of attention, but to the best of my perception, Gordon had no Orator (there were several assistants who functioned like stage attendants, moving the rolling door frames—the only other set pieces aside from the chairs—from one location to another as if the entrances to the “room” were unfixed in space) and he and his wife, his principal dancer and actress who played the Old Woman, never jumped out of the window at the end (as far as I could interpret what they were doing—though there was no window for them to jump from anyway, so I guess I can say this with some assurance).  Whatever else Gordon may have done, this sort of takes the guts out of Ionesco’s play, doesn’t it?  Without the deaf-mute Orator who is supposed to pass on the Old Man’s wisdom and without their defenestration, the futility of communication, of life itself—Ionesco’s main point, I believe—is entirely lost.  Turning the bleak and pessimistic dynamic of Ionesco into an antic rant (or a rantic ant) is further counterproductive.  (Gordon even sang bits of “You Are My Sunshine” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” just to further subvert the darkness of Ionesco’s play.)

I don’t know what else to tell you—and, like my Jesurun “report,” this seems terribly inadequate.  Those two productions also make me question the perspicacity of the BAM producers in selecting them for presentation—a sense I had after the Nora, too.

[Both these performance accounts, which predate my more formal play reports, were originally e-mails to a friend and didn’t include many of the elements that I later included in the versions I created for my out-of-town friends after 2005 and then, more recently and conscientiously, for ROT.  I’ve edited these slightly to amend my off-hand mentions of events and people the intended recipient would have recognized or which refer to details from earlier messages.  I’ve made an effort to fill in the names of the artists I didn’t identify originally, but for things like the press response to these productions, I’ll let curious readers look up the reviews themselves this time.]

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