With their idiosyncratic wordplay and rarefied themes, Eugene Ionesco's plays can be difficult for any audience--and a real challenge for the cast that has the nerve to take them on.
Even the best pros have skidded when trying to make the French absurdist's dramas accessible; too often, the result for the audience is a head-knotting sense that the joke has zoomed right by.
Give that challenge to a young, inexperienced cast, and the hazards of Ionesco can be magnified to truly obscuring proportions.
Examples: Two of the three student-produced one-acts being offered at Orange Coast College.
The campus drama department's Repertory Theatre Company has mounted "The Leader," an obtuse, metaphorical satire on the idolatry of political figures, and "Salutations," a slim piece that is more like a skit devoted to nonsense than anything else.
Neither is representative of Ionesco's best work. If you want to get a more telling view of the writer who is credited with fathering "theater of the absurd," turn to his full-length plays, which, though unyieldingly abstract, at least give his unusual point of view some time to develop.
At OCC, the formlessness of "The Leader" and "Salutations" seems to have stumped everyone concerned. The student actors strive to deliver the lines with conviction, as if they fully grasp the arcane goings on, but the effect is stagy confusion. The student direction fails to focus the productions into more than a curious dramatic exercise, a learning experience that seems more appropriate for the classroom.
The third one-act is Harold Pinter's "The Dumbwaiter," an unlikely way to close a program that starts with Ionesco. Although Pinter's play does have its peculiar moments, it really has no allegiance to the style of absurd theater. Still, it's the most successful production of the evening.
"The Dumbwaiter" lets us watch the nervous antics of Ben and Gus, two hit men awaiting their next assignment in a dingy, claustrophobic hotel room. Gus, played with an effectively physical comic edge by Greg Guy, is the more sensitive of the two; he frets over their violent careers and what it all means.
On the other hand, Scott Parks' Ben is a vaguely brutal pragmatist who occupies his time marveling on the mayhem headlined in the newspapers; he's divorced himself from the job at hand.
Director J. Frederick Berkman is unable to make the pointed conclusion clear (a major stumble), but up to that point, he plumbs "The Dumbwaiter's" black humor and its air of moral anxiety. This one is more than a bit flawed, but contrasted with the muddled staging of what preceded, it's almost a revelation.