- TheaterJones review
- Dallas Morning News review
- Dallas Observer review
- FrontRow review
- 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 not just by 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 Beckett’s Endgame or Waiting for Godot probably 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 just the ‘post-war Paris’ school of playwrights.
Take Sartre’s No Exit: We are trapped in relationships 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 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, babbling on, trapped in a form of death. We do not suddenly encounter, say, some alternative perspective, some form of escape, some credible fantasy or hope.
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. Out the windows, there’s water everywhere (“stretching as far as the horizon,” says the Old Woman) and apparently no one else around; these two may be the last couple on earth. 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 most such plays. But 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, though; 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 mutual fantasy 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. 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 implies — what? We should believe there was an audience all the time, and we are the ones who are deluded? The whole set-up about the couple getting chairs for no one was just a goof? 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?
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 send-ups of bourgeois life. Ionesco is actually creating a kind of stage surrealism, filled with non sequiturs, inversions and 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 gibberish.
The playwright labelled The Chairs (and some of his other plays) a “tragic farce,” 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 silly 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.
Ionesco’s writing points toward such trippy dead-ends as Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad or early Sam Shepard. Such plays can have a spirit of free-associational, Alice-in-Wonderland nonsense that easily falls into obscurities. In effect, they say, “The world doesn’t make sense so this play won’t make sense.” It’s a ploy that used to be called “the imitative fallacy” because it can be used to justify any bad work of art.
Ionesco, for instance, has the Orator at the end write on a chalkboard the words, “angel food.” I wonder what it is in the original French (gauteau des anges?) because in English, ‘angel food’ can be a quippish elegy on the deaths of the Old Woman and the Old Man. It doesn’t say much; it’s just a play on words, a way to ‘button’ the scene, a snarky adios.
Or it could be just another piece of impish nonsense from the Orator. And Ionesco.
Photos by Matt Mzorek