The Playgoer: REVIEW: Ionesco One-Acts

Custom Search

Saturday, January 06, 2007

REVIEW: Ionesco One-Acts

The Lesson & The Painting
by Eugene Ionesco
presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
through January 6 at the Connelly Theatre

The highlight of this evening of Ionesco one-acts is by far the latter half, The Painting. I had never seen or read the play before, and so was blown away by how much darker and even weirder (if you can believe it) it is from other Ionescos. There was one moment toward the end of Kevin Konfoy's staging when a collision of violence and beauty--all to the accompaniment of snippets of Nino Rota carnival music--seemed downright Formanesque. (Richard Foreman, that is.) And that's as things should be with Ionesco, reminding us of how avant-garde he once was and the debt owed to him by our latter day theatrical bad boys.

The Painting, in its bitter and grotesque depiction of a poor artist and a pretentious businessman patron, also couldn't be more timely. "I can't pay you," says the collector, "but you can leave the painting here, for a small storage fee." It's a wonderful dramatization of biting the hand that feeds you--precisely because that hand ultimately only feeds itself. Phoenix leader Craig Smith (a downtown legend from the "old" Cocteau Rep days, before he and colleagues defected to form this splinter company) brings just the right level of grounded, earthy silliness to the businessman, making even an awkwardly bulbous fat suit work for him. I wished some of his onstage partners displayed the same level of subtlety and deadpan, instead of seeming out of another, more cartoonish play.

The opening half of the bill--the more familiar The Lesson--I found less satisfying, mainly because its forced silliness made the play oddly quaint and "old Europe" instead of fresh and daring. Who says the professor still has to wear old academic robes? Why continue to play the scene in standard-issue "farce" mode when the deeply disturbing themes of education and authority at work here cry out for a more unsettling approach? Director Amy Wagner cartoons it up with cheesy scenery with chalk-drawn accessories and guides her actors with fair enough comic timing. But it all seemed a bit rote to me, personally, and ultimately dragged the play since its "joke" (that "instruction" is a fraud and sucks our souls) deliberately goes on a lot longer than is merely funny.

But exposure to "The Painting" alone makes the evening worthwhile, if you can catch it in its (sorry) last performance tonight.

No comments: