I am not acquainted with the works of the late playwright Eugene Ionesco. But that doesn’t matter. The Romanian born writer (“Rhinoceros,” “The Bald Soprano,” “Exit the King”) is part of the post-World War II group of playwrights, including Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, identified as Theatre of the Absurd. The existential meaningless of life afflicted these writers, who in varying degrees used laughter or irony in their work as a response. “There are many sides to reality,” Ionesco wrote. “Choose the one that’s best for you.”

But you don’t need to be familiar with his plays to enjoy “Ionescopade” at The Odyssey in West L.A. It’s a truly silly, wonderful and brilliantly performed evening of “musical vaudeville,” in song, mime and farce based on his plays.

This is a return to the scene 30 years later for director Bill Castellino, who helmed the off-Broadway hit production when it made its West Coast debut at the Odyssey in 1982. Songwriter Mildred Kayden created the original music for the 1974 New York premiere. Recently revived in New York, “Ionescopade” was revitalized for the current production.

Be amazed and amused by the vocal talents of these fine actors in The Odyssey Theatre's production of 'Ionescopade,' an evening of musical vaudville based on the characters of the late playwright Eugene Ionesco. (Photo courtesy Enci Box)

Be amazed and amused by the vocal talents of these fine actors in The Odyssey Theatre’s production of ‘Ionescopade,’ an evening of musical vaudeville based on the characters of the late playwright Eugene Ionesco. (Photo courtesy Enci Box)

Hats off to The Odyssey. This is one of the most monstrously talented ensembles of actor/singer/dancers ever to grace any stage. The vocal talents of Andrew Ableson, Cristina Gerla, Kelly Lester, Tom Lowe and Jennifer Malenke will amaze and amuse you, and Joey D’Auria, who played Bozo the Clown on TV from 1984 to 2001, brings his clownish background to the antic acting. Alan Abelew manages to remain silent while serving throughout as master of ceremonies, pulling off some great sleight-of-hand (and mouth!) tricks along the way.

D’Auria shines in “The Cooking Lesson” where, dressed as a French chef, he pompously teaches us how to boil an egg. Following a dazzling opening in which the costumed actors appear with signs around their necks identifying Ionesco’s characters (The Diva, The Writer, The Bride, The Beast), Tom Lowe blows the roof off, then shows off, his glittery high heel boots in the cross-dressing ode, “Everyone is Like Me.”

Bobby Watson and Family are characters referred to but never seen in Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano.” Here, six of them, each named Bobby Watson, appear in the same red and white polka dot costumes, each with the same name, singing and dancing the shtick they’re best not-known for. It’s dazzling and completely goofy.

Comic sound effects and cartoony English music hall-style music, brilliantly designed costumes and great timing all make for a topflight production. No context required.

“Ionescopade” runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 11, with select performances on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Call (310) 477-2055 or visit www.OdysseyTheatre.com, located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles.

Must-see film

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the bio-pic “Hannah Arendt” opens at Laemmle’s Royal and other L.A.-area Laemmle venues June 7.

This is a complex, serious film about a subject that still causes controversy in certain corners of the intellectual universe.

Arendt was a German Jewish philosopher and political theorist who saw the coming horrors of Germany’s war and escaped first to France, then other parts of Europe before finally settling in New York. She aspired to a life of pure thought, but social and historical realities would put her beliefs to the ultimate test.

While being Jewish was core to her identity, Arendt aspired to be an uncompromising thinker who wanted “to understand.” Influenced by philosopher Martin Heidegger (in the film she comes to him as a student and asks him to teach her how to think) she had a passionate love affair with this far-older professor. Despite his denials to the contrary, he became a Nazi, and Arendt became an apologist for him.

These contradictions play out in the controversy Arendt created when writing for The New Yorker about Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in the newly-formed state of Israel, then a nation of Holocaust survivors and socialist idealists.

Eichmann organized the trains that carried Jews to the gas chambers; Arendt famously coined the phrase, “the banality of evil” to describe the unthinking and morally unconscious individuals who merely “followed orders.” And she asserted that Eichmann proved to be a mere functionary who, because he did not think, truly believed he was not guilty.

While this rankled and was later proven wrong, the violent backlash against Arendt came when she accused some of the Jewish leaders who testified at the trial of being complicit by cooperating with German authorities.

This film provides archival news footage of Eichmann’s capture and trial, and travels across Germany, America and Israel to tell Arendt’s story. It isn’t easy, but it is important. See the trailer here www.zeitgeistfilms.com/hannaharendt/. The film opens June 7 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Darkly comic

Walls of the Santa Monica Museum of Art look familiar — sort of. Artist Joyce Pensato has transformed Batman, Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat into black and white, wall-sized, splattered and deconstructed versions of these iconic comic book characters.

I Killed Kenny is Pensato’s first museum show in the United States, and Batman is a key protagonist in her work. She’s taken ready-made promotional cardboard cutouts and cut them up to reconfigure his body; she’s painted his mask in enamel paint and drawn it in charcoal on paper.

Artist Joyce Pensato works on a site-specific piece for her show I Killed Kenny at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. (File photo)

Artist Joyce Pensato works on a site-specific piece for her show I Killed Kenny at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. (File photo)

Pensato also imposes the element of emotion — mostly hers — onto these cartoon characters, using them as allegories for the human condition. To put it mildly, they can be disturbing. I’d call them cartoons for adults, not so much for children.

Look for the collages, juxtaposing images of Abraham Lincoln with art posters, photographs of African-American boxers, as well as Hollywood stars like Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Gena Rowlands. Pensato fuses abstract expressionism with figuration through the vocabulary of popular culture.

I Killed Kenny is on view through Aug. 17 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, www.smmoa.org at Bergamot Station.

 

Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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