Andrew Price and Peter Brown in Rhinoceros
Andrew Price and Peter Brown in Rhinoceros
Foregoing Dr. Seuss and Amelia Bedilia, Edward Einhorn's older brother used to read the kid to sleep with the works of one of the master playwrights of the 20th century: Eugene Ionesco, author of The Bald Soprano and The Future Is in Eggs, a slyly subversive clown who liked to refer to his work as "the theater of derision." Einhorn, now the artistic director of Untitled Theater Company #61, says that the plays of the great avant-gardist were "how I got introduced to theater."

What better way to return the favor than by reintroducing New York theaters to Ionesco? Einhorn is the prime mover behind the massive Ionesco Festival that is running through mid-December, a joint effort of 17 downtown theater groups. The Festival encompasses stagings of everything Ionesco ever wrote--the full-length plays and the shorts, the masterpieces and the, er, non-masterpieces. A year and a half in the making, Einhorn's dream project kicked off on September 6 with the opening of Rhinoceros, a dark and giddy satire on conformism that was given a delirious, hilarious Untitled Theater Company production directed by Einhorn himself. The casting, in particular, was spot-on, with Peter Brown deploying a deadpan bitterness to perfect effect as the caustic snob Jean--the first among many characters to transform into a rhino.

On the Monday after the Rhinoceros opening, I gave Einhorn a call. During our conversation, he spoke excitedly of his admiration for Ionesco's particular brand of absurdity. We talked about the playwright's gleefully disruptive takes on the idea of community; his fascination, informed by an easily-led Romanian father, with fascism and communism; his attempts at "rethinking things like authority and the way we deal with what we're told and what's really true." The day after our talk was September 11. Suddenly, the director was in an absurd position, presiding over a festival of absurdism amidst a new national atmosphere of indefinite foreign operations, anthrax scares, terrorist home videos on CNN--things that, a week earlier, would have been considered truly absurd. I called him back.

"The festival is doing, uh...okay," Einhorn said at the top of our second conversation. In the days after the attack, he explained, the Connelly Theater (where Rhinoceros was playing in alternation with The Viscount, Journeys Among the Dead, and the other shows that had opened the festival) was temporarily shut down, along with everything else below 14th Street. But the company was back to work by the weekend and audiences slowly began to return; Einhorn notes that the final performances of Rhinoceros were sold out.

Meanwhile, like artists everywhere, Einhorn and his cohorts were taking a new look at their material. Reeling after the events of the 11th, potential audiences may have found it difficult to see the humor in, for example, The Killing Game--a play about a horrible plague in which everybody dies. The cast was understandably anxious but decided to keep going. Einhorn was also worried about other moments in the festival's various productions: The Viscount features a scene in which a fireman is clubbed in the head, while Tales For Children includes dialogue about "adventures in an airplane."

Carol Schultz, Robert Hock,and Celeste Ciulla in Exit the King
Carol Schultz, Robert Hock,
and Celeste Ciulla in Exit the King
"But, once I was in the theater and seeing the plays, it just felt like the right thing to be doing," Einhorn says now of the decision to carry on. "Even at The Killing Game, where people were very worried about the darkness of it, the play seemed to resonate in a whole new way--it became more relevant and more complex. I saw it in a different light, and the audiences responded differently, too."

Though The Killing Game and Rhinoceros have both closed, along with Pearl Theater's magisterial Exit the King, the Ionesco Festival is just getting warmed up. Jack, or the Submission and The Future Is in Eggs, in Spanish language versions from Mexico's Investigadores del Arte Escenico, opened on October 22 at the Clemente Solo Velez Cultural Center; Hunger and Thirst bows on October 26; still to come are Bank Street's English version of Jack (November 9) and Looking Glass Theater's all-female version of Man With Bags (November 14). Opening on November 23 is Macbett (November 23), Ionesco's retelling of Shakespeare--"The Scottish play," goes the description, "only more comic and less optimistic." There is much more to be offered in the form of films, readings, etc. Nor are Ionesco's short plays getting short shrift: They're being presented in a sort of traveling repertory as opening acts for the full-length shows. (Click here for the day-by-day schedule.)

"The more the festival has gone on, the better I feel about doing the plays," says Einhorn, referring to his initial trepidation. After all, the particular challenge of Ionesco has always been his dark themes and serious commentary, which so often come dressed in the language and pace of the ridiculous. It's a quality that Einhorn admires, one he also finds in the work of his other literary hero: L. Frank Baum, creator of The Wizard of Oz. "I think humor is a much more effective way, a subtler way of bringing people into the show and making them hear whatever else you want them to hear," Einhorn explained when we first spoke. "That sense of humor is one of things that attracted me to Ionesco and to Oz.

"[Ionesco] wrote about the absurdity of life, the fragility of life, the way that things can change in a moment," Einhorn added after the life of New York City and the world had, indeed, changed in a moment. "He wrote about the existential idea of a fight against death when you know you're going to lose, yet he could see a comic side to all of that as well." And that's only one facet of the author's brilliance.