"The last decisive moment of the play should be the expression of...absence."
—Eugene Ionecso in a letter to Sylvain Dhomme, the original director of The Chairs
On the day before opening of The Chairs, the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, which houses Kitchen Dog Theater, is eerily quiet. Small noises from the Black Box theater can be heard in the empty gallery and Managing Director Elizabeth Kegley strolls by with a dog under her arm and phone in hand.
When I peek into the black box, I see the set is being painted a stark, cold white. The only chairs I see will belong to the audience tomorrow. I knock over a broom and KDT Co-Artistic Director Tina Parker looks up, smiles and says "Hey Kid." Director Tim Johnson looks at his watch and says, "Oh yes! Lost track of time, hello!"
He grabs coffee from the office and we plop down in chairs in the gallery away from the fresh paint—a recommendation Parker makes for the sake of our brain cells. When I realize my recorder is dead, Johnson and I make embarrassingly bad small talk about technology that I listen back to later, as I set up voice memos on my iPhone just in time to capture the end of our conversation.
More than 50 years after the original production, Kitchen Dog Theater stages Ionesco's tragic farce The Chairs a repetitive story about earth's final couple seeking meaning. In perhaps the most challenging piece of his career (his words), Johnson has been reaching for a balance between the grotesque and the vaudevillian.
"I am drawn to the grotesque, but there is an element of clowning in the script," he says. "Those were inspirations, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Punch and Judy. Finding the marriage between the clown and these people who are archetypal in that they are the last of humanity and they are beyond old. That tension has been very important to me."
The show stars KDT Company Member Rhonda Boutté and Shakespeare Dallas Executive and Artistic Director Raphael Parry—two veterans of Dallas stages. This show, which would be grueling for anyone, requires actors who are no longer young.
"In the middle of the play there is this chair extravaganza that is incredibly tasking," Johnson says. "Then they have to continue the play for another half-hour."
The Chairs is one of the great examples of theater of the absurd—the play forms without a cogent plot, relationships are not necessarily cause-and-effect and it points to the absurdity of the human condition. Many audience members will leave The Chairs without "getting it." I've read it three times and I'm not sure I "get it." But I had Johnson at my fingertips, who has spent a chunk of his career with absurd playwrights.
"You'll know the answer to this. How would you summarize or simplify this play…you know for a friend?" I avoid direct eye contact at this moment. And his laugh implies the impossibility of my question, but he answers anyway.
"What I'm most drawn to is the humanity of the piece," he says. "For me the center of it is this need to make meaning or purpose of our lives and it's just an illusion—we're chasing after rabbits. Amidst all of the hilarity, that's the emotional center of it for me."
I want to ask him if the play reminds him of Groundhog Day, because it is repetitive, on the verge of monotonous. But I don't want to look ridiculous and before I can ask another question, he's drawing out for me all the ways in which he believes The Chairs was Edward Albee's inspiration for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (another show he directed for KDT, in the early 2000s). My ears perk up, afraid I'll miss the most compelling part of the interview, and I shake Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" out of my head.
"As far as I can gather from my research no critic has really written about this, other than that they're both absurdist theater," Johnson says. "But the couples bickering, the fake guests—there are too many similarities for it not to have been Albee's foundation."
At this point, I realize it may not be ridiculous to draw a line of comparison to Groundhog Day and I remember the Steven Dietz play Lonely Plant, which is upfront about drawing its plot from The Chairs, even quoting Ionesco directly.
Absurdist theater does that; abstract art is in so many ways a foundation for other kinds of art. Artists often draw inspiration from patterns, colors, size and subject of previous work. The Chairs, and in a broader sense Ionesco's whole career, allowed for much of the theater that followed.
When you're watching The Chairs, you're seeing so much more.