Sunday, October 8, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Majok and Ionesco

Today's Script Reading Roundup: two talented playwrights of Eastern European heritage with very different styles, approaches, and places in the canon.

by Martyna Majok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Ironbound is a neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, but it's also an appropriate metaphorical title for this play about a Polish immigrant woman struggling to make the best of a bad set of options. Martyna Majok dramatizes pivotal moments in the life of Darja over the course of more than 20 years, creating a bravura role for an actress in the process. Although the title of the play makes it sound very grim, it has moments of humor and tenderness, and the three male roles reveal unexpected depths. Admittedly, some plot developments at the end failed to convince me: the main difficulty with this kind of character-study, slice-of-life play is wrapping it up in a satisfying way, and I'm not sure Ironbound pulls it off. Still, this is an absorbing and heartfelt drama about the crumbling American dream and the choices Darja makes to cling to it.

Rhinoceros and Other PlaysRhinoceros and Other Plays by Eugène Ionesco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just after the 2016 U.S. election, Teju Cole published an essay on what Rhinoceros can tell us about the dangers of “minimiz[ing] evil or describ[ing] it as something else.” And it really is uncanny how the dialogue in this play anticipates arguments that I am currently reading online and in newspapers… even though Ionesco's characters are discussing an invasion of terrifying, mindless, destructive animals, and we nowadays are discussing the Trump administration. (Oh, wait.)

Admittedly, Rhinoceros is one of those plays that was groundbreaking when it was first produced but now feels more familiar. Just as R.U.R. set the pattern for subsequent “robot uprising” stories, Rhinoceros often feels like a prototype for zombie movies. I mean, obviously it’s about people turning into rhinos, not zombies, but it uses a lot of the same tropes: the mysterious outbreak that advances with terrifying speed, the confusion and angst of the dwindling band of survivors, the understanding that this supernatural horror is really a metaphor for something else.

Though Ionesco’s message about the lure of fascist conformity is pretty grim, there is enough absurdist humor here to keep it an entertaining read (I particularly liked the stage direction “the rhinoceros replies with a violent but tender trumpeting”). It’s also comforting to think that maybe the misfits of the world are the ones best equipped to resist mass hysteria. The protagonist, Berenger, is a bit of an outsider in his small provincial town: he’s melancholic, alcoholic, dissatisfied with life. But he is able to resist the rhinoceros plague after the more outwardly successful citizens succumb.

I was less impressed with the other two, shorter plays in this volume. While Rhinoceros deals with “normal” people reacting to an absurd situation and involves some degree of psychological realism, the characters in the other plays are shrill, absurdist caricatures. Also, it’s annoying that the The Future is in Eggs is listed as “a kind of sequel to Jacques, or Obedience,” but Jacques isn’t included in this volume (you have to get Grove Press’s other Ionesco compilation, The Bald Soprano and Other Plays , for that).

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