Director Bill Castellino should be feeling some déjà vu right now. His staging of Ionescopade, “a musical vaudeville based on the works of Eugène Ionesco,” opens Friday at Odyssey Theatre in West LA. But didn’t Castellino already direct and choreograph Ionescopade at the Odyssey?
Indeed! With Castellino at the helm in collaboration with composer Mildred Kayden, a production by the same name had its West Coast premiere, opening August 7, 1982, produced by Odyssey’s Ron Sossi.
Castellino reports that “it is the same concept and it is the same format. It is different in that some of the plays have been deleted and different ones have been added. The song order has changed. I’ve directed it three times since then, so I think my work has changed and grown in that regard. And the world is different. If you’ve seen it before, you’ll find the familiar in it. But I think the experience impacts a different way today. Mildred and I have a done a lot of work on it over the years that has kept it reflective of our times, still holding onto the Ionesco view of the world.”
The Romanian-born playwright’s “view of the world” was labeled as part of Theatre of the Absurd by dramatist and academic scholar Martin Esslin in his 1960 essay of the same name, based on Albert Camus’ concept of the absurd — “capturing the meaninglessness of existence.” Esslin linked Ionesco (1909-1994) with such writers as England’s Samuel Beckett, France’s Jean Genet and Russian-born Arthur Adamov, all of whom emerged in the 1950s.
Castellino recalls, “Before I got on board with this, Ionescopade was created by Robert Allan Ackerman and Mildred Kayden. There was an Off-Broadway production in 1974. It was Mildred who brought this work to Ron Sossi’s attention in 1981. It was Ron who introduced me to Mildred. And I’ve had an ongoing close association and collaboration with Mildred ever since. In 2012, we did Ionescopade Off-Broadway at the York Theatre, and I directed it at the Smithsonian in Washington 15 years before that. She and I have talked about other projects over the years, and in the last two years we’ve become quite active in our collaborations.”
Created from the plays, playlets and poetry of Ionesco (Rhinoceros, The Bald Soprano, Exit the King) Ionescopade incorporates, farce, parody, mime, heightened speech and movement in a musical setting, accompanied by pianist/music director Gerald Sternbach, supplemented by a percussionist and a woodwind player. Composer/lyricist Kayden, now 90, was actually a guest of Ionesco in his Paris apartment when this work was being created in the early 1970s. They remained friends until his death.
Castellino readily admits to having an even greater appreciation of Ionesco’s work than he did in 1982. “First of all, the work holds up like all good art does. The times have changed, but Ionesco’s work still has a resonance. It did not just exist as an avant-garde movement or avant-garde reflection on theater during a particular time in history. I think it really is an important building block for what we’ve come to know as contemporary theater. Its use of language and humor has been absorbed more and more into the mainstream. The use of minimal scenic concepts, more poetic theatricalizations, the move away from realism or naturalism, is utilized quite commonly in today’s theater. Those of us in the current avant-garde scene feel we’ve been nurtured by the work of theatrical innovators such as Ionesco.”
In staging this work in 2013, Castellino and Kayden saw no need to incorporate the current status of social media, mass communication or internet access. “The purpose of this play is not to make it more current. The intent of our production is to allow the play to reflect on contemporary times. In my opinion, there is no need to change anything for the play to do that, except to allow for the mirror to be held up. As far as the internet is concerned, I think the idea of ‘sequitur’ has changed because of our rapid access to information and our standard of multi-tasking. What might have seemed a non-sequitur a generation ago is sequitur now. In today’s society, it is common to move from one subject to the next at lightning speed. Part of what Ionesco was on the forefront of was creating within a non-sequitur world, changing subjects from one to the next. That’s an interesting reflection of how Ionesco was forward-thinking. Both of my Odyssey casts have relished being inside Ionesco’s world.”
The eight-member cast of the 1982 production at the Odyssey certainly had some familiar LA theater names, including Sam Anderson, Dan Gerrity, Jeanne Daugherty, Rodd Coonce, Sandy Edgerton, Jeff Greenberg, Garret Pearson and Kerima Reed. The current all-new cast calls for only one less ensemble member — Alan Abelew, Andrew Ableson, Joey D’Auria, Cristina Gerla, Kelly Lester, Tom Lowe and Jennifer Malenke.
“The actors in our ensemble all wanted to do research on Ionesco and the times he lived. Each — since they are performing in different plays — found their way to different material to help them frame their work within the total show. The big ensemble focus was learning a style because I think there is a tendency to want to be natural, like on television. In the Ionesco plays, there is a heightened reality that is required in order for his plays to work. There is a sort of elevated formality even among supposedly mundane characters. It is not easy to achieve and the ensemble needed to be in accord as to how that heightened reality style is accomplished. The actors needed to spend some time exploring. What the ensemble has accomplished is a very high-style piece about some very dark things that happens to make us laugh out loud.”
Castellino puts a big emphasis on “laugh out loud,” emphatically declaring that Ionesco is remarkably funny, and he feels that today’s audiences just might be better in tune with the show’s humor. “The current culture keeps redefining what’s really funny, whether you’re looking at Saturday Night Live or South Park, films like The Hangover. All of these things have affected what we laugh at. I think Ionesco is on the cutting edge of laughing at ourselves, laughing at our hangups and using laughter as a survival tool. He was writing in the shadows of World War II, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, after having survived living in France during the Nazi occupation. He was writing funny plays. I think it was a way for him to deal with his own feelings about those dark times. I also think there is darkness in our time and finding a way to examine these darknesses through humor is a key to survival.”
When asked if the term “vaudeville” is an apt description of this work, Castellino responds, “Well, who knows? The definitions and the lines separating vaudeville, cabaret, burlesque and revues have been blurred over the years. I’ve had my share of experience writing and directing cabaret acts in club rooms for artists like Ann Hampton Callaway and Amanda McBroom. I’ve directed many revues like Smokey Joe’s and Beehive. I’m drawn to those forms because the rules are pretty much open for debate. In this kind of performance event, whenever the lights go down and come up again, the audience really doesn’t know what to expect. You are not trying to follow a continuing dramatic through-line. It’s anything goes. For that reason, it is very exciting to conceive and direct.
“Ionescopade is performed in two acts. The continuity between the two acts is facilitated by a silent character in the play, which was played by two clowns in the New York production. Since I’ve been working on this production there is just one character and he is called the Little Man. He serves as a kind of host through these episodes. We come to understand him as the Writer. It is implied that he is an Ionesco-type character who doesn’t speak but allows the plays to speak for themselves.”
And once the Ionescopade ensemble speaks and sings for themselves on opening night at the Odyssey, Castellino is whisking back to New York where he is a very busy man. “I am still working with Mildred. I directed two short operas of hers, produced earlier this year. I am in the process now of directing another musical of hers called Storyville that will open Off-Broadway in July in New York. I am also in pre-production on a Broadway show.”
Having been born in a small Appalachian hamlet (population 600) in Pennsylvania, Castellino had no clue that he would have a life in the theater, let alone a successful one. “My mom and dad were second-generation. I had a very traditional Catholic school education and did not study the arts. I had piano lessons at one point but that didn’t take. My first opportunity to see big city life was when I went away to college in Boston. I was a journalism major. A couple of years into that, I changed into the theater.
“I studied acting because back in those days that’s the only thing you could study. Soon after, I got involved with Elizabeth Swados doing Nightclub Cantata (1977). That was my first professional job as an actor. Then I moved to Los Angeles and my first professional directing job was at the Odyssey, staging a production of Nightclub Cantata (1980). So, that’s where my artistic path took me. Since then, I’ve directed a number of shows at the Odyssey, including Elizabeth Swados’ collaboration with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, the satirical Rap Master Ronnie (1985). I am now what you would call a freelance director. I also choreograph. I’ve also written eight musicals and a lot of cabaret and revue material.
“I guess I diversified, partly to survive, partly to arouse myself to learning about the many aspects of creating new work. I live in New York, but I do my share of traveling. This last eight months I’ve been on the road a lot. The upcoming eight months I will be principally in New York. I’m busy and I’m very lucky. It is thrilling to have made my living and continue to make my living in the theater my whole adult life.”
When asked if he has any advice for people who might be experiencing Ionesco for the first time, he recommends that they “watch it and don’t spend too much time trying to figure it out. Just let it wash over you, concentrating on each object to the next. Have a good time and think about it later.”
Ionescopade, Odyssey Theatre
, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., LA 90025. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat. 8pm, Sun 2 pm, except June 2 (5 pm). Through Aug. 1. Tickets: $30. www.OdysseyTheatre.com. 310-477-2055 ext. 2.
**All Ionescopade production photos by Enci Box.