An elderly couple who spend the entire evening setting up chairs for invisible guests who’ve come to hear an invisible orator. French villagers transformed one by one into rhinoceroses. A soprano without a single hair on her head. Could there be anything more ridicule?

Welcome to the world of théâtre de l’absurde as epitomized by Eugène Ionesco, the French playwright whose plays The Chairs, Rhinoceros, and The Bald Soprano express the meaninglessness of life in the most amusing of ways … and now form the basis of Ionescopade, Robert Allan Ackerman and Mildred Kayden’s wacky vaudeville currently being revived at the Odyssey Theatre three decades after its Los Angeles debut.

Ionescopade_5 Far more than simply a musical revue, Ionescopade combines Kayden’s songs with scenes from Ionesco’s plays and one particularly powerful monolog to make for an evening of theater unlike any you’ve likely ever seen.

Musical director-keyboardist Gerald Sternbach starts off the evening by interrupting Ionescopade’s zany overture to instruct the audience that “it’s all right to laugh,” as if the overture’s prominent slide whistle and bells weren’t already enough to signal an evening of madcap madness.

Ionescopade_8 Still, in Ionesco’s world, “absurd” means far more than simply “nutty” or “preposterous” or “bizarre,” and there is considerable deeper meaning to be found in Ionescopade for those with a mind to dig deep, while those less intellectually inclined need only sit back and enjoy the ride.

Bringing Ackerman and Kayden’s vaudeville to life on the Odyssey stage under its original 1982 director-choreographer Bill Castellino’s assured hand are six of L.A.’s finest triple-threats and one master of magic and mime.

Andrew Ableson dazzles in a pair of showcase solo pieces, revealing gorgeous pipes in the Brel-esque “Madeleine” and demonstrating powerhouse acting chops in the deeply disturbing monolog that climaxes Ionesco’s play The Killer.

Ionescopade_2 Joey D’Auria’s wildly funny French chef instructs us in the art of boiling an egg, followed by D’Auria’s glorious “Josette,” another chanson reminiscent of the legendary Jacques Brel, who just happens to have written and recorded numerous hits around the same time that some of Ionesco’s most famous plays were making their debut.

Cristina Gerla, Jennifer Malenke, and Kelly Lester show off their vocal gifts, each in her own showstopper—Gerla in “Flying,” Malenke in “Fire,” and Lester in “Mother Peep,” which has Mama Chick and back-up chickmates clad in head-to-to yellow.

Tom Lowe proves a triple-threat par excellence in “Everyone Is Like Me,” which has the West End/American Idol vet donning fake mustache, diamond pendant earring, bright red lipstick, and bejeweled high-heel boots because … Well, simply because. (This is Ionesco after all.)

Ionescopade_1 D’Auria and Lester join forces in “Frenzy For Two,” excerpted from Ionesco’s one-act Frenzy For Two Or More as a couple trapped inside their house while war rages around them.

Ionescopade_7 A clown-garbed Gerla and Lowe show off their vocal/dance gifts in “Surprising People,” a number sure to remind older audience members of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly’s “Be A Clown” in Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate.

Ionescopade_6 Full-cast musical numbers include the wacky “Bobby Watson and Family,” with the entire song-and-dance ensemble in black wigs, horn-rimmed glasses, and red-and-white polka dots, each and every one of them named Bobby Watson. The entire cast also perform Ionesco’s one-act “The Leader,” in which a much adulated dignitary turns out to be both headless and brainless. (Sound familiar?)

Completing the ensemble without uttering a single word, singing a single note, or dancing a single step is the all-seeing, all-knowing, scene-stealing master of mime and prestidigitation Alan Abelew.

Despite being as far out of the ordinary as any theatrical piece can possibly be, Ionescopade can be enjoyed regardless of one’s familiarity with Ionesco’s works or absurdist theater, though what audience members take home is sure to vary according to what they bring with them into the Odyssey.

Ionescopade_3 One thing is certain. Ionescopade wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without the amazing Abelew, the extraordinary Ableson, the remarkable D’Auria, the delightful Gerla, the divine Lester, the fabulous Lowe, and the luminescent Malenke.

Sternbach’s masterful musical direction (with Hayan Charlston and Tina Curtis joining him in the onstage band), Mylette Nora’s supremely imaginative costumes, David Potts’ fanciful scenic design, and Jeremy Pivnick’s vivid lighting design contribute greatly to Ionescopade’s success as do Joe Behm and Josie Griffin-Roosth’s sound design and Katherine S. Hunt’s props design.

Ionescopade is produced by Ron Sossi. Camden Gonzalez is assistant choreographer, Amanda Rountree assistant director, and Griffin-Roosth stage manager.

You don’t have to be a diehard Ionesco fan to enjoy Ionescopade, nor do you need to be familiar with absurdist theater to have a marvelous time at the Odyssey, not when onstage and behind-the-scenes talents salute a 20th Century master of the absurd in so entertaining a fashion.

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
June 19, 2013
Photos: Enci Box

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