At Kitchen Dog Theater, The Chairs is Furnished with Smart Comic Surprises
Kitchen Dog Theater's production of Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs is perfectly absurd. Also absurdly perfect. Change hats.
It takes a few minutes, 15 or 20, to get into the rhythm of the thing. At first it's slow, but for good reasons. The pace gradually picks up, like the assembly line at the I Love Lucy candy factory. The faster it goes, the funnier this play is. Doorbell.
There are only two central characters in this intermission-free, 90-minute one-act. We first see the elderly couple, Old Man (Raphael Parry) and Old Woman (Rhonda Boutté), standing in different corners of a sparsely furnished, dreary waterfront warehouse. He's peering out a window. She's over by the door, one of many on the clever set designed by Scott Osborne for Kitchen Dog's smaller black-box space. The doors open in curious ways; hardly ever as you'd expect. Puppets.
Husband and wife, moving in tiny wind-up-toy shuffles, step toward two chairs, sit down and begin a tedious conversation punctuated with lengthy pauses. The crash of the surf can be heard outside. Or maybe it's highway traffic. Or jet engines. Or all of those blended into a roar, the kind you hear in your own ears when a room is engulfed in silence. (Sound design for this show is by John M. Flores and it's masterful. Same for lighting by Suzanne Lavender and costumes by Giva Taylor.)
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"I'm very bored," the old man whines. The old woman begs for stories, the same ones he's been telling every evening of their 75-year marriage. "Every night I come to it fresh," she says, urging him to push repeat. So he starts talking about a mythical trip to Paris, going deep into Ionesco's wicked wordplay, where nothing makes sense and then everything does. Paris seems to have been destroyed in the old man's version of history. Maybe he and his wife are the last people left on earth. In this play, it often feels that way.
When it premiered in Paris in 1952, Les Chaises was experimental theater at its most avant garde, predating Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot debut, also in Paris, by about a year. In both of these tragic farces, the settings are gloomy and post-apocalyptic, with strange characters trapped by unexplained forces and spouting nonsensical language. In The Chairs, the old husband and wife are prisoners of isolation. Wherever they are, they're alone there and despite all those doors, there's no way out. (Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, a decade earlier than The Chairs, was surely an influence.)
The Chairs, it's worth noting, was written when Ionesco was only 40 (he died in 1994 at the age of 84). His tough vision of the golden years is expressed by Old Man, who says he's sinking "into the black drain of despair." That character also complains that "old age is an albatross — may you remain forever young." (Ionesco, always compared to Beckett, later grew bitter about Beckett's Nobel Prize. But Ionesco one-upped by outliving his rival.)
Much of the first half of the play has Old Woman berating Old Man for his missed opportunities. He's a janitor, or was, but if he'd only tried harder, he could've been a contender. She doesn't let up until he curls into the fetal position and cries for his mommy.
That sounds heavy, but as a classic piece of absurdist theater, this play is lighter than Godot and both broadly funny and deeply surreal. In Kitchen Dog's terrific staging, company member and director Tim Johnson gets the balance between free-floating reality and slapstick comedy precisely right. So do his actors. Boutté, barking out lines in a foghorn voice, toddles around in weird hats and baggy nightdress, timing lines for maximum comic effect. Parry takes on the lovably daffy dimness of Stan Laurel's sweet screen persona, even looking a bit like him under a purple derby, face caked in clownish white greasepaint (which he sweats off by the end of the play).
What's most impressive about these actors is how easy they make this difficult piece of theater look as performers. They're having a whale of a time doing it, especially when they start dragging out dozens of chairs for the old couple's imaginary dinner party. As the man and woman welcome a rush of guests — violinists, chemists, bankers, an emperor, a group of giants, Beauty and her Beast — they play good host and hostess and build anticipation for the arrival of "The Orator," due to deliver a message of great importance to the world.
The placing of the chairs and the fetching of them through all those wacky doors is the best part of the show. And just as they grow breathless from their labors, a revolving door delivers two tall glasses of water, which Boutté and Parry gratefully gulp down. From barely moving at the beginning of the evening to running full tilt in well-choreographed chaos all over the stage, these actors of a certain age commit themselves completely to the verbal and physical anarchy of this play. They may be embodying caricatures, but they make them human and give them vulnerability. When an invisible guest tosses programs back in Old Woman's face, we're offended on her behalf.
Visual and aural surprises pop up throughout. There really are puppets. The actors do change hats a lot. And that doorbell keeps ringing, even though nobody's there. For all its verbosity, this is a play about absence. And silence. But it's OK to laugh. That's the best kind of noise anyway.
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