Theater small talk is like an artistic audit tallying which of the shows you missed matter the most. Even though no one can see them all, there always seem to be one you-really-should-have-seen.
Tim Johnson's production of The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco at Kitchen Dog Theater, with Raphael Parry and Rhonda Boutté, is one of those shows. It will be a litmus test for years to come.
A test of taste.
An acquired taste, but taste nonetheless. Admittedly it's absurd to expect theatergoers to acquire an absurd taste when the absurd is so rarely made in such a tasty fashion.
Except that the flavors that run through Ionesco's masterpiece run through everyone's life: love and lust, isolation and suffocation, fulfillment and despair, exhilaration and stagnation. You may find that you're more accustomed to this piece than you expect or even understand.
An old couple waits in a room surrounded by sea. Beyond that there isn't much that can be definitively said about the plot. The Old Man (Raphael Parry) may have discovered the meaning of life. They may be hosting a gathering in order to share it with everyone. The Old Woman (Rhonda Boutté) brings in chairs for the guests but as they arrive they turn out to be imaginary. It's not the first clue that we're in a mad world but it is the most definite.
Just because they're invisible doesn't mean they won't need a place to sit. And so, more chairs must be provided until the stage is full. Just when you think you've got it figured out, the Orator (Brian Witkowicz) arrives to deliver the Old Man's message to the assembled imaginary luminaries. Having peaked, the couple leaps into the sea.
Oh, and the Orator is deaf and dumb.
Born of Existentialism, Ionesco's masterpiece, like Beckett's Endgame, deals with an isolated couple, possibly post apocalypse. Their interactions are largely memories replayed like travelers reading a map to see where they got lost. In this world that would later be gathered under the label "absurdist theater," the characters are overwhelmed with freedom to the point of stagnation and regret. Having been graced with existence but not its point, all of their attempts to find meaning fail.
Actually, yes. In the right hands.
So often, in a work that bears meaninglessness as a badge, the actors are seduced into hollowing out their characters. This results in the audience getting more than their fare share of the despair.
Parry and Boutté avoid the emptying, taking their characters' whims to clownish proportions. She plays the Old Woman with extreme age and surprising libido. He plays The Old Man with jumpy subservience and paralyzing regret. Their commitment carries the day. Somehow even during the stretches that grind the boredom of the characters into our hearts, we are willing to hang in there because they are so fascinating to watch.
You will probably never see a finer set design than Scott Osborne's for The Chairs. The carefully random doors, shutters and windows congregate together to form the suggestion of an interior, but their evenly weathered texture says just the opposite. In fact, their sprinkled arrangement sans frames poses an impossible construction that is as confusing as it is delightful. And that is before it begins to do its tricks.
It was written in 1952, and director Tim Johnson sprinkles updated references in the script to help assuage the time-capsule feel. Humanity is arguably more isolated and alone than when the play was written but it is well salved for those pains with technological time passers. It's debatable whether today's collective conscious could muster enough despair to compete with the existentialists when surrounded by so many ready distractions. Today's post-apocalypse equivalent would be an Internet outage.
Nevertheless, the great accomplishment of the production is the mood of the audience on the way out. Having witnessed the struggles of the characters and their demise, we leave relieved. Ionesco's label for this play "tragic-farce" applies perfectly: with tragedy we're relieved through catharsis, with farce we're relieved because there are no real consequences. In this case, we get both.
What might seem like a pointless waste somehow leaves you feeling hopeful.
There's no point in asking why. Or rather, the point is that asking why is pointless. This labrynthine logic exists in every play that plays with existence. As the Old Man says, "It's so hard to put things into words, yet everything must be spoken."
At the end of the play, the chairs may be empty onstage, but seats won't be. So, get your tickets now because you know just like death, the audit is unavoidable.