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Review: ‘The Chairs’ at Kitchen Dog

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  • Critical Rant and Rave review

Kitchen Dog Theater’s current revival of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs has gotten the company some of the best reviews it’s received lately. But I must disagree with the prevailing opinion — though not about the well-upholstered production. From the performances of Rhonda Boutte and Raphael Parry to Tim Johnson’s direction and Scott Osborne’s set design, this is about the finest staging of an Ionesco play you’re likely to see.

But then, it may be the only one you’ll see for a long while. Ionesco’s works are rarely staged these days, and that’s not just by our classics-averse North Texas theaters. You’d be hard put to find an Ionesco play — outside of Rhinoceros — enacted most anywhere in America in recent years. This is the first professional production of The Chairs I’ve attended and the first staged in Dallas since 1962. Ionesco is often lumped with Samuel Beckett because of Martin Esslin’s ‘Theater of the Absurd’ label, but it’s instructive to realize that, as unappealing as many people may find Beckett’s chilly, daunting comedies, he’s a hot ticket compared to the French-Romanian writer. Since 1962, the number of area productions of just Waiting for Godot or Endgame outnumber all of Ionesco’s work.

There’s a good reason for that. The Chairs doesn’t make sense. I know, it’s an absurdist play; it’s supposed to be bewildering. But that’s not entirely true. As barren and bizarre as Beckett’s plays may seem, once their basic metaphor is understood, the remainder of the play is logical — inexorably logical. The same is (mostly) true of plays by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus — the other writers roped together into what was first known as simply the ‘post-war Paris’ school of playwrights.

Take Sartre’s No Exit: We are trapped in relationships with other people, just like souls stuck in a room in hell, and the rest of the play remorselessly follows from that set up. So, too, with Camus’ Caligula: Absolute power traps us in its own logic. Beckett sees us as trapped in our solipsistic psyches like people stuck in urns (Play). Or we are trapped in our personal histories like an elderly man listening to his memories on tape (Krapp’s Last Tape).

All of these plays end with death — or with the characters more or less back where they began, trapped and babbling on. We do not suddenly encounter, say, some alternative perspective, some escape, some credible hope of change.

So what’s different about The Chairs? An elderly couple is living out their days in what looks like a crumbling hotel ballroom or mansion. Married couples appear throughout Ionesco’s plays as symbols of failed lives and miscommunication. Here, the Old Woman admonishes the Old Man that he could have been president or king, certainly more than just a caretaker or custodian. Outside, there’s water everywhere (“stretching as far as the horizon,” says the Old Woman) and apparently no one else around. Paris, the City of Light — if we can believe what they say — has been extinguished for four hundred thousand years.

We have, then, the kind of isolated nowhere or end-of-the-world setting for many such plays. But although this couple may be the last people on earth, the Old Man’s attempts to justify his life have led him to arrange a lecture for this evening. He’s invited people, hired an orator. It’s a last chance for his profound thoughts to be heard. The doorbell rings, people start arriving, the couple frantically hauls out chairs for them.

No one actually comes in; they’re all imaginary. The Old Man and Woman eagerly chatter to the air and get more chairs. So we are presented with three possibilities: They’re deluded; they’ve gone mad. Or they’ve devised this charade between themselves to break up the monotony. Or perhaps they both secretly know the whole thing’s a sham, and they play along out of concern for the other. She wants him to succeed; he doesn’t want to be embarrassed in front of her.

OK. But with any of those scenarios, how are the ringing doorbells explained? And when the Orator arrives, he’s a third actor in the flesh (Brian Witkowicz). Which means the couple can’t be completely out of it or completely alone. They hired him and here he is. Yet the Orator also seems to believe there’s a live audience onstage because he performs to the empty chairs as if there were people sitting in them. So he must be deluded as well? Or somehow he knows that the two want this charade to go on for the sake of the other?

Then, at the very end, everyone is gone and the stage is empty. Yet Ionesco indicates in his directions that we should hear an audience applauding. Which seems to imply that all of this was a metaphor about theater, not necessarily about life. But does the applause mean we should believe there was an audience all the time, and we are the ones who are deluded? In which case, what about the Orator? Why did he go along with the plan for a performance when he knew he was a mute and the whole thing would be futile?

In fact, a strong reason for Ionesco’s popularity in the ’50s and ’60s is how self-consciously theatrical his plays are — when compared to Beckett’s seemingly barren stage (he was even dismissed by many early critics and directors as essentially “anti-theatrical”). Ionesco likes to play with props and masks and roles and dialogue and theatrical metaphors (consider The Bald Soprano: two couples who apparently know each other continually speak in Monty Python-ish non sequiturs in a send-up of language and meaning).

So forget absurdism, forget Beckett. Ionesco wrote The Chairs in 1952 before anyone had come up with such a ‘school.’ Think more of surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s inversions of bourgeois life. Ionesco is actually creating a kind of stage surrealism, filled with a moment-by-moment dream logic that is deliberately inconsistent, open to eruptions and shifts. But it’s also a surrealism, like Bunuel’s, that’s motivated by social satire. Beckett was interested in death and decay. Ionesco is more interested in exploding the conventions of society and art. The couple greets the town’s social set — colonels, doctors — and they grovel before the emperor, all of whom don’t exist. The lecture — essentially, a play-within-a-play — is Ionesco’s send-up of old-fashioned, didactic theater. It’s pompous gibberish.

The playwright labelled The Chairs  (and some of his other plays) a “tragic farce,” apparently intending the two genres should not blend so much as combat each other, revealing their contrivances. And for his part, director Johnson has upped the vaudeville-comedic elements as much as possible. Both Parry and Boutte wear white-face makeup like mimes, and they shuffle in high gear like Tim Conway’s geriatric characters on the old Carol Burnett  Show. They display a gentleness with each other and a complete obliviousness to the import of the events around them — until the very end. But this means that at best, Parry and Boutte toggle between playing sad clowns or hilarious clowns. They get some well-earned laughs, but it’s an awful lot of shuffling and toggling for what feels long at nearly 90 minutes. Essentially, Kitchen Dog has offered us a well-upholstered production of some threadbare, period surrealism.

Ionesco’s writing points toward such trippy dead-ends as early Sam Shepard or Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad. Such plays can have a liberating, comic spirit of free-associational, Alice-in-Wonderland nonsense, but they easily fall into deliberate obscurities and pointless non sequiturs. In effect, they say, “The world doesn’t make sense — or people cannot truly communicate with each other — which is why this play doesn’t make sense.” To trot out a very old-fashioned critical tool: This ploy used to be called the “imitative fallacy” because it can be used to justify any bad work of art (the faulty work is simply imitating failures of logic or coherence).

Ionesco, for instance, has the Orator at the end write on a chalkboard the words, “angel food.” “Angel food’ can be a quippish elegy on the deaths of the Old Woman and the Old Man: They are now ‘food for angels.’ It doesn’t say much. They’re gone, goodbye, they didn’t amount to much while alive. It seems a way to ‘button’ the scene, a snarky adios.

In short, it’s mostly just a play on words — like so much of Ionesco.

Photos by Matt Mzorek

 

 

  • http://www.facebook.com/lawson.taitte.5 Lawson Taitte

    Actually, Jerome, Ionesco’s “Exit the King” had a Broadway production in 2009, and I saw an imported British “The Chairs” there in 1998. Except for “Godot,” that’s much more recent than any Beckett play there. (I realize that I’m cheating by focusing on Broadway, what with the festival of Beckett’s plays from Ireland — at Lincoln Center, right?)

  • JeromeWeeks

    New York doesn’t count at all. Everything seems to find a stage there sometime. Hell, I’ve seen Pirandello’s ‘Naked’ there — off-off-Broadway, of course. You seem to enjoy Ionesco more than I do. For many years in the ’70s, a lot of theater people did, more than they liked Beckett. I’ve got a couple of encyclopedic surveys of drama from that period, and both devote pages to Ionesco and only a couple paragraphs to Beckett. I’ve suspected for years it was because Ionesco is more ‘theatrical’ than Beckett — he gives actors, directors and designers lots more STUFF to play with. I remember talking to a local director about what ‘classic absurdists’ she’d like to stage and she practically gushed about how much she loved Ionesco. But since at least the ’80s, Ionesco’s reputation, just his PRESENCE on stage, has definitely dimmed.