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For the last half century, French playwriting’s been dominated by two masters of language who in some ways couldn’t be less French: the Irishman Samuel Beckett and the Romanian Eugene Ionesco. Beckett’s small, somber tributes to the human spirit’s gift for negativity are familiar friends to New Yorkers, but Ionesco, who died in 1994 at the age of 82, has nearly slipped off our radar screen. It’s understandable: Where Beckett’s work shrank into ever tinier intensities, Ionesco’s expanded, evolving from his taut early one-acts into free-flowing, multi-character dreamscapes. And where Beckett made his own immaculate English versions, Ionesco, linguistically twice-removed, has always depended on the kindness of translators, some of whom have been less than helpful.

But the man who found the dizzying dementias of The Bald Soprano in the dialogues of an English-for-foreigners textbook is about to find glory and recognition downtown. For 13 verbally disorienting weeks this fall, the Ionesco Festival (September 6-December 9) invades a variety of Off- and Off-Off venues, offering productions or readings of all 39 of Ionesco’s works for the stage, plus a retrospective of his cinema work at Anthology Film Archives.

The Festival’s highlights include a rare production of the stark, sardonic Exit the King (September 13-October 21, Pearl Theatre, 80 St. Mark’s Place, 598-9802); a guest company from Mexico (Investigadores del Arte) performing the linked one-acts Jack and The Future Is in Eggs in Spanish (October 22-28, Clemente Soto Velez, 107 Suffolk Street, 260-4080, ext. 16); and, in a turnabout of Soprano‘s origins, a translation of Ionesco’s Conversation Exercises at various venues for Americans studying French.

That, of course, only scratches the Festival’s surface. There’ll be bills of short plays, late-night shows, adaptations from Ionesco’s fiction, and even Ionesco-linked improvisation. Two major works, Amedee (November 6, Clemente Soto Velez, 107 Suffolk Street, 260-4080, ext. 16) and A Stroll in the Air (October 28, Clemente Soto Velez, 107 Suffolk Street, 260-4080, ext. 16), will get staged readings in English, which means the latter will have been seen here twice.

That paradox, in a way, sums up Ionesco, who is a sublimely great writer in a language you never wholly understand. In his plays, logic moves so rapidly that the bottom may drop out of reality at any moment. Objects and corpses proliferate; language dribbles away while meaning drowns in a sea of alternatives. Two strangers recognize each other only to discover they’ve been married for years; a professor kills a student by wielding the word knife. The sinister monks in Hunger and Thirst keep two starving men imprisoned: One will be fed if he accepts God, the other if he denies God. If France supplied the rigor and clarity behind Ionesco’s studies in the madness of reason, the violence and the strange, wistful melancholy suffusing his work can easily be traced back to his native Romania. The latter also gave France one of its greatest modern philosophers, Ionesco’s close friend E.M. Cioran, who declared that living was no problem once you got over the terrible mistake of having been born. It’s easy to see, in the playwright’s extravagant leaps of fantasy and the verbal precision with which he cuts them down, the sensibility the two men share. The title of one of Cioran’s books, The Temptation to Exist, could be the theme of most of Ionesco’s plays, with their constant journeys and desperate restartings from square one.

“I’m not capitulating!” cries Beranger, Ionesco’s Everyman, at the end of his best-known full-evening play, Rhinoceros. All of Beranger’s friends have turned into rhinoceroses; the streets are full of them, thundering along, bellowing at the top of their lungs. But Beranger, ordinary though he is, refuses to follow the pattern. He’s not capitulating. Neither, one might say, did Ionesco. He could have spent his later career turning out carbon copies of his earlier forays into the Absurd. Instead he journeyed, like his adventurous heroes; he traveled through dreams, passions, lies, and sins, waltzing with his memories, contemplating Death, and eavesdropping in the corridors of Power. Like the great voyager-writers of the past, he brought back news, enchanting and glittering, from these mysterious worlds—exotic places that, when we experience them, turn out, to our terror, to be just like our own homes. Which doesn’t make the traveler’s tales less magical—if anything, the reverse is true. In that married couple who meet as strangers, neither, it turns out, is the person the other thinks. In Ionesco, even the surprises have surprises.


Opens September 5

The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, 255-5793

Japanese writer Junichiro Tanazaki inspires Big Dance Theater’s latest, about a blind musician in 19th-century Osaka. Music by Glenn Branca and Obie winner Cynthia Hopkins. Gale Gates’s Michael Counts lends his considerable set-design skills.


Opens September 5

The Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, 244-7529

Sam Shepard’s new play concerns—surprise—two brothers and the American West. Here’s hoping Shepard takes a new path through his familiar terrain. Directed by longtime collaborator Joseph Chaikin, with actors Guy Boyd, Ethan Hawke, Arliss Howard, and Sheila Tousey.


Opens September 6

P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue, 477-5288

Clarinda Mac Low and the Voice‘s James Hannaham collaborate on an impressionistic theater piece about Dr. Ernest Everett Just, a black American biologist who conducted pioneering research on cell division during the 1920s and ’30s.


Opens September 6

The Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, 206-1515

New Georges opens their season with Barbara Wiechmann’s play about an alleged sighting of the Virgin Mary in upstate New York. (Jesus had siblings, you know, so Mary wasn’t always a virgin.) The cast of 11 features Mary Schultz and Maria Striar.


Opens September 7

Henry Street Settlement Experimental Theater, 466 Grand Street, 802-9350

Obie winner Robbie McCauley directs Kamal Sinclair Steele’s new play, an attempt to break down the victim-perpetrator dynamics that surround the legacy of slavery in North America.


Opens September 7

The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, 239-6200

Playwrights Horizons begins a vagabond year while its new theater is built. For their season opener, they’ve slipped a few blocks west to the plaid confines of the Signature. In The Spitfire Grill, a tuner by James Valcq and Fred Alley, a young woman with an uncertain past moves to a Wisconsin town with its own troubled backstory. Hope it’s not your usual cheesy musical.


Opens September 8

RedLAB Theater, 100 Water Street, Brooklyn, 718-797-0046

Japanese director Shirotama Hitsujiya mounts a production that will take place simultaneously in Tokyo and Brooklyn, courtesy of Live Channel webcasting. A rumination on distance and communication, the performance also employs cell phones, faxes, and video, but no pleasant-smelling mimeographs.


Opens September 13

29th Street Rep, 212 West 29th Street, 465-1714

Playwright Brett Neveu puts the heat on suburbia, in a comedy set amid backyard barbecues. Here’s hoping it’s well done.


Opens September 13

Collapsable Hole, 146 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-388-2251

Collapsable Giraffe returns with a happy blast of trash theater. Booze, ketamine, and pirate orgies. Do not sit in the front row.


Opens September 15

Variety Arts Theatre, 110 Third Avenue, 239-6200

A musical adaptation of the classic cult film about the dangers of living near coral. Paula Abdul choreographs.


Opens September 18

Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, 239-6200

Strindberg’s back in vogue for the 21st century: Last season saw Robert Wilson’s visually lush A Dream Play, this summer gave us Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish production of The Ghost Sonata. Now Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren hit Broadway, and maybe each other, in Dance of Death, Strindberg’s 1901 tale of marital non-bliss. Adapted by Richard Greenberg.


Opens September 18

Galapagos, 70 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 718-465-7572

Boo Froebel’s monthly performance party returns for the fall. The kickoff lineup includes puppets by Matt Acheson, aerial acts from Chelsea Bacon, The Sadness of Things by playwright Rinne Groff, dance via David Neumann, and performances by the Pontani Sisters. Manhattanites welcome, but please do not purchase any local property.


Opens September 19

Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, 246-4422

Can’t say Second Stage had the greatest season last year, so here’s hoping their first show of the fall kicks things back into Jitney-style gear. Mary Zimmerman adapts and directs Ovid in a production that won a Los Angeles Ovation Award for Best Play and Director. If nothing else, it’s a chance to sit in Rem Koolhaas’s gorgeous theater.


Opens September 19

The Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, 353-0303

The very amusing Doug Wright, an Obie winner for Quills, opens the Vineyard’s season with four short plays, described as “mordant bedtime tales for adults.”


Opens September 20

The Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway, 239-6200

Neil LaBute reworks the Garden of Eden for his stage follow-up to Bash. This tragicomic spin on the battle of the sexes, courtesy of London’s Almeida Theatre, stars Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz.


Opens September 21

Roseland Ballroom, 239 West 52nd Street, 307-7171

Robert Lepage and Peter Gabriel collaborate on the centerpiece of the “Québec New York 2001” arts festival. The pair take over Roseland in a fantasia that’s said to involve mechanical airplanes, contortionists, robots, and upside-down tango dancing, among other virtues. The chicness value of the event is very high, so let’s hope the show is more than just a grand parade of lifeless packaging.


Opens September 23

Fez, 380 Lafayette Street, 533-2680

Monologues, sketches, and assorted rants from performers Mike Albo, Nora Burns, and David Ilku. I’m confident that Fez’s basement space is not the firetrap it feels like.


Opens September 25

John Houseman Theatre, 450 West 42nd Street, 239-6200

Just like it sounds. Australian performers David Friend and Simon Morley use their pee-pees and related dangly bits to tell comic tales. Bring the kids.


Opens September 26

P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue, 477-5288

The best title of the season. Jacob Wren’s performance piece comes south courtesy of the “Québec New York 2001” festival, and concerns life in an idea-less universe. Un spectacle drôlement sensible, organique, et prenant, they say. Hope so.


Opens September 27

The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, 727-2737

Charles Nelson Reilly’s one-man show about himself. Enough to drive the Irish to drink.


Opens September 30

Lincoln Center, Vivian Beaumont Theater, Broadway and 65th Street, 239-6200

Alan Alda stars in Peter Parnell’s new play. Alda portrays noted physicist Richard Feynman in what promises to be a more Queens-inflected Copenhagen.


Opens October 2

Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue and 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100

BAM hosts a month of arty Aussies, a program that includes two major theater productions. Company B Belvoir and Black Swan Theatre mount Cloudstreet, a five-hour epic about two families sharing a crumbling house in post-WW II Australia. Based on the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, Nigel Jamieson’s The Theft of Sita is a massive shadow-puppet play about environmental destruction and corporate greed.


Opens October 2

Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, 399-3030

Fuddy Meers author David Lindsay-Abaire opens MTC’s season with Wonder of the World, a comedy set in Niagara Falls. Christopher Ashley directs, Sarah Jessica Parker stars. Television fans might recognize Parker from her starring role on Square Pegs.


Opens October 4

P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue, 477-5288

Ann Magnuson’s solo show tracks the adventures of a “been-there, done-that” single woman after she does Ecstasy for the first time. A pill-popping picaresque from the post-Power of Pussy performer.


Opens October 5

The Winter Garden Theatre, Broadway and 50th Street, 563-5544

The first new show in the Winter Garden in 18 years. ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus have turned a batch of their old hits into a stage musical set in a tavern on a mythical Greek island. Take a chance on it?


Opens October 10

The Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, 358-3657

Target Margin titles its 11th season “Target Margin Goes to the Opera.” First up, director David Herskovits’s take on Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro, the 1784 play that inspired Mozart’s opera. Expect TM’s ™-ed reconstructive stagecraft.


Opens October 18

Axis Theater, 1 Sheridan Square, 807-9300

Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle duke it out over spiritualism and séances. Presented in Axis’s suitably eerie, sci-fi theater space.


Opens October 24

Here, 145 Sixth Avenue, 647-0202

Obie-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, dragster Mr. David, and opera singer Robbie Stafford collaborate on a performance piece, part of a series of puppet-based events at Here. Also featured this fall: puppeteers Kevin Augustine and Tim LeGasse, as well as shadow theater from Chinese Theatre Works. If only Mr. Dressup‘s Casey and Finnegan would make an appearance . . .


Opens October 30

MCC Theater, 120 West 28th Street, 727-7765

Rebecca Gilman’s next New York production, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, centers on an abused teenager and her older, ex-con husband. Maybe this new play will be more artful than Gilman’s heavy-handed Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl.


Opens October 31

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100

Jan Lauwers won a 2000 Obie award for Morning Song. His Brussels-based Needcompany returns to BAM with their avant-Belgian production of King Lear, a play that’d send anyone in search of a heavy beer.


Opens November 1

Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, 752-3015

Director Tadashi Suzuki, developer of the Suzuki method, mounts productions of two Greek classics. Suzuki himself will speak after the November 3rd and 4th shows.


Opens November 7

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100

Musician Fred Ho, playwright Ruth Margraff, and martial arts choreographer José Figueroa collaborate on a jazz-based Chinese opera about the Shaolin Secret Scrolls. Renegade monks and avant-garde battle scenes.


Opens November 11

Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, 479-7979

Soho Rep, which won an Obie cash grant last spring, opens its new season with Melissa James Gibson’s cleverly titled comedy about three wunderkind who ain’t so kind anymore.


Opens November 13

The York Theatre, 619 Lexington Avenue, 239-6200

Set in the Old West, Roadside is a new musical about the travails of “a wagonload of kissin’, punchin’, lovin’, cussin’ gypsies”—which sounds suspiciously like the Voice‘s newsroom. Music by Harvey Schmidt, book and lyrics by Tom Jones (presumably not the Welsh pop star or Henry Fielding’s 18th-century foundling).


Opens November 15

P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue, 477-5288

This time let’s call it “the Theater of Re-Inflection.” Downtown (and Ben Brantley) fave Richard Maxwell returns to P.S. 122, with the story of a loner drummer who lives at home with his mother.


Opens November 15

The Zipper, 336 West 37th Street, 239-6200

The Charles L. Mee fall continues. After First Love kicks off NYTW’s season, True Love premieres the new Zipper Theater on West 37th Street. Mee part-three starts November 30, when BAM (Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100) offers up Big Love, an adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women.


Opens November 21

The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, 239-6200

As a onetime audience participant, I can attest to “mentalist” Marc Salem’s considerable powers of suggestion. He returns this fall with a new show of mind-reading feats.


Opens November 30

New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, 239-6200

Cheek by Jowl director Declan Donnellan helms Tony Kushner’s next NYC premiere, the story of an Englishwoman who mysteriously disappears into Afghanistan, and her daughter’s desperate attempt to find her. Will probably not feature Taliban wet T-shirt contests.


Opens December 5

The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, 255-5793

I’ve never seen the work of multimedia performer Miranda July. But I’ll be attending her Kitchen show based solely on its advance PR, which describes the piece as “the existential dilemma of an insurance agent and her obsessive attempt to bury herself in the garden.”


Opens December 27

The Ontological Theatre, 131 East 10th Street, 533-4650

Richard Foreman stages his 50th production. Maria del Bosco concerns three fashion models who “fall in love with a racing car that turns into human consciousness.” Perhaps subtitled The Jeff Gordon Story, the piece is said to be a return to Foreman’s most avant-garde roots, using only 40 lines of dialogue and no string or Plexiglas.



Primary Stages, 354 West 45th Street, 333-4052

Conor McPherson’s next New York show is a Dickensian-sounding tale of three “lost souls” revisiting their sins on Christmas Eve. A companion piece to McPherson’s St. Nicholas?


The Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 260-2400

The Public continues its long-term commitment to Shakespeare. Keith David stars as the tragic Venetian general in Othello, or The Moor the Not-So-Merrier. Liev Schreiber plays Iago, Doug Hughes directs.

Listings by Brian Parks