Traditional plays give actress Kelly Lester two hours to find her character’s arc. “Ionescopade” gives her a couple of minutes.
UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television alumna Lester has to utilize all of her acquired performing talents in the Odyssey Theatre’s production of “Ionescopade,” a musical revue created as a tribute to the playwright Eugéne Ionesco, one of the foremost figures of the theater of the absurd.
Lester, who has studied acting since childhood, uses her various experiences in dance and musical theater to portray multiple characters within the show.
The show, directed by Bill Castellino, is comprised of a collection of absurdist pieces based off Ionesco’s work. This created a challenge for the actors, who all play multiple roles, because they have to fully develop characters that sometimes only exist for three minutes on the stage.
Lester said Castellino worked with the actors, extracting their idiosyncrasies to create a work of theater specific to the chemistry and talents of his cast.
“He calls it a living work of theater – a living work of art, because it depends on who’s cast and what the performers bring to it,” Lester said. “They sort of move in and out of the different songs and the different pieces of Ionesco depending on how they’re performing it. So the show is never the same.”
Lester said some of her specific performance talents manifested themselves in a dark humor piece within “Ionescopade,” in which she depicts a prima ballerina.
“What Castellino didn’t know when he cast me was that I do have a ballet background. I studied with some serious Russian ballerinas who taught me how to have some really great ballet arms,” Lester said. “So I really pull off this prima ballerina thing, where in another production somebody may not have had a ballet background, and it may have been a completely different piece.”
“The difficulty in it, is that the whole show is different snippets of Ionesco’s work set to music,” Lester said. “You move from one piece to another and you’re never the same person twice.”
Lester was exposed to the art of performance growing up with her father, Peter Mark Richman, a successful actor, whom she credits for first teaching her what good acting is.
“From a very young age my father was always telling me to be honest in my performance,” Lester said.
Lester took this advice and said she always prioritizes the acting in her performances, even though she was primarily trained as a singer.
“I always start from telling the story and conveying the emotion in the story because that’s the most important thing,” Lester said. “When I do that, the voice is always better. I always try to be honest and spend more time listening and reacting. It’s what’s in between the lines that’s often the most important and interesting.”
Lester furthered her performance training by receiving a bachelor of arts in theater at UCLA, where she met Gary Gardner, a professor in UCLA’s department of theater. Gardner directed Lester in two shows, one of which was a student-written production called “Hurry! Hurry! Hollywood!” through the music department her senior year.
“I can’t say anything bad about Kelly,” Gardner said. “If you say ‘Kelly do this,’ she’ll do it. In ‘Hurry! Hurry! Hollywood!’ her male love interest was such a method actor. I’ll never forget one night we were all tired and he was going into ‘I don’t understand my motivation’ and I can still see Kelly turning and saying ‘Oh shut up, Wally, it’s a musical!’ and that’s Kelly.”
Cristina Gerla, one of Lester’s fellow actors in the production, said Lester’s performance of the stereotypically psychotic prima ballerina was one of her favorite numbers in the show.
“Kelly is a fantastic comedian and it’s absolutely delightful to watch her create this character who is so simple,” said Gerla, who graduated two years ago from UCLA’s Theater, Film and Television program as a musical theater student. “There is not a lot of showy stuff to it, but it’s extraordinarily hilarious in her simplicity in how she approaches this character.”
Lester said she thinks the simplicity and honesty in a performance is often what is missing in a musical theater performance.
“A lot of the time musical theater is just the light, fluffy stuff,” Lester said. “I think it’s exciting when you go to the theater and you first think ‘Oh gosh, she was such a great actor,’ and then ‘Oh my God, can they sing.’ When an actor can fill every moment with honesty, you’re excited, so that’s where I try to start.”