Based on texts by Eugène Ionesco
Directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota
Produced by Théâtre de la Ville
Off Broadway, Devised Theatre
Runs through 1.27.17
BAM's Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place
by Ken Kaissar on 1.25.19
The cast of Ionesco Suite. Photo by Ed Lefkowicz.
BOTTOM LINE: A reckless and visceral mash-up of five texts by Eugène Ionesco performed in French.
Anyone who has struggled to understand the plays of Eugène Ionesco should not miss Théâtre de la Ville’s Ionesco Suite. Even though the piece is performed in French, you will immediately understand the anguish, anxiety, desperation, hilarity, indignation and terror in the work. The piece is a mash-up of five Ionesco texts, and was devised by a seven-person ensemble under the direction of Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Theatre of the Absurd aficionados will recognize excerpts from The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, as well as lesser known titles like Jack, or the Submission; Delirum for Two; and Conversation and French Speech Exercises.
It would be fruitless to offer a plot synopsis here. The piece doesn’t provide a cohesive story as much as it delivers a potpourri of emotion that is impossible to experience passively. Throughout the evening, I was amused, unnerved, and terrified.
I’ve seen U.S. productions of The Lesson and Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros, but have found that American artists struggle to understand Ionesco’s worldview. His sensibilities are necessarily French, borne of a particular trauma and annihilation during World War II. Americans may understand that history intellectually, but the French experienced it first-hand and its terrible repercussions still reverberate in their bones. To us, Ionesco may seem silly and absurd, but in the hands of the French, there is a palpable desperate cry for help amidst the uncontainable spread of evil. While this production has its moments of hilarity, it’s performed with an underlying sense of agony and despair that goes far beyond anything I’ve seen on an American stage.
Our obsession with safety alone would sink an American ensemble’s efforts to create the recklessness and disarray that Théâtre de la Ville produces so effectively. At one point, actors wrestle with each other while trying to avoid smashing into a birthday cake with lit candles. Legs, arms, and faces brush up against the cake with little regard for the open flames. On more than one occasion someone’s body must have snuffed out some of the candles, and yet the inherent hazard did not disrupt the audience. It was an appropriate expression of the danger in Ionesco’s world, and a safer stage would have seemed dishonest. The moment is then redeemed with comedy when a buffoonish fire marshal shows up.
Perhaps the most shocking moment of the night is when the knife that had been used to slit the throat of one of the characters was casually placed on the knee of an audience member in the front row. Even though we can surmise that the knife is dull or plastic, allowing an audience member to make physical contact with the menacing instrument seems a bold, even terrifying disregard of the line drawn between audience and performer.
The skill and commitment of this ensemble is as obvious as the fact that Itzhak Perlman is a great violinist. The performances are not just brilliant, they are genuine and unpretentious. The actors bare their souls and allow us to experience a part of their cultural heritage that only they can deliver.
In bringing a raw and visceral piece of theatre across the Atlantic, Théâtre de la Ville has done New York audiences a great service. Ionesco Suite is a truly unique piece—beyond imitation or recreation. If you want to transform an academic understanding of Ionesco into an experience of the soul that motivated his work, run to BAM before this incredible ensemble flies back to Paris. Or you could wait for the next local university to offer their understanding of whatever they think Ionesco is.
(Ionesco Suite plays at BAM's Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, through January 27, 2016. The running time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Friday through Sunday at 7:30. Tickets are $25 and are available at BAM.org or by calling 718-636-4100.)
Ionesco Suite is based on texts by Eugène Ionesco. Directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Set and Lighting Design by Yves Collet. Costume Design by Fanny Brouste. Music by Jefferson Lembeye and Walter N'Guyen. Assistant Director is Christophe Lemaire.
The cast is Charles-Roger Bour, Jauris Casanova, Sandra Faure, Sarah Karbasnikoff, Stéphanie Krähenbühl, Walter N'Guyen, and Gérald Maillet.