- The Chairs
- By Eugene Ionesco
- Directed by Robert McNamara
- Produced by Scena Theatre
- Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Blinding light floods the stage and the walls of the castle tower. An illustrious fanfare accompanies the opening of the upstage double doors. Surprise: nothing is there because an imaginary emperor is standing there. After what seems like eons later, the expected, real character enters through a side door. Brava and bravo to the Scena Theatre’s design team: Marianne Meadows for lights; David Crandall for sound; and Hannah J. Crowell for that set design of eight-loose-hinged doors, for a delayed stage entrance with impact—the climax of The Chairs.
The rest of Scena’s staging of Romanian-born French playwright Eugene Ionesco’s quaint masterpiece, however, is not so successful. This Marx Brothers’ style of vaudeville-inspired action misses its mark. Some entertaining moments make us chuckle. This production, however, is Robert McNamara’s distinctive vision of Ionesco’s play.
In a castle tower on an island, two old people, a 95-year-old janitor, “the master of the mop and bucket” or the Old Man (David Bryan Jackson, well-cast for his expressive eyes) and his doting 94-year-old wife, the Old Woman (Colleen Delany) are opening their doors to distinguished guests and waiting to hear a hired orator deliver a last-will-and-testament message for the benefit of mankind. As the Old Woman reminisces and overcrowds the room with chairs for the arriving audience, space evaporates and anxieties mount.
The play is written by a genius. Ionesco’s every word supports a massive build-up for the entrance of the Orator (Ian Blackwell Rogers), clad in Draconian black cape and crimson scarf, who turns out to be a deaf-mute who can only chalk up messages on a blackboard. Overall, this production falls short in that Jackson and Delany play their characters like one-dimensional clowns, freezing into grotesque poses and hanging from ladders. While some of the staging seems inventive, the acting style gets in the way of the slow crescendo to the wipe-out shocker at the end.
This 90-minute one-act needs to start with what’s innocent, mundane and safe for us. Instead of a calm preparation for death, McNamara’s version has his actors start with a constant trumpet blast that never lets us hear the highs and lows of the poetic passages. One example involves the delicate references to the relationship between mothers and sons, or the Old Man’s first love, “the fabled Beauty.” There is abundant music in Ionesco. In this production, however, it’s all bang without the whimper of humanity. We need to hear the old-timers’ souls twist in pain. Charlie Chaplin, when he played clownish caricatures, was famous for capturing that nuance. Otherwise, we don’t care about these people.
These performers are so full of over-the-top hyperactivity that we can’t glean the terrifying reality underneath. These old people are losing their humanity, their individuality. What should come across as spontaneous improvisation sounds forced and looks staged. All that sexual foreplay implied in the script, for example, needs to stay the way it’s written—soft-pedaled—subtle. Ionesco’s language doesn’t need masturbation for us to get the message.
The excellent technical effects help hold the chaos together though. When 40 chairs congest the stage, humor blends with tragic horror. Constant dinging doorbells can be heard against an ominous drone of an airplane. Jackson’s flamboyance has its best moments as he pantomimes moving between rows of seated imaginary people. Delany does well with a frantic moving in and out of several doors to bring chairs in from different directions. In another sequence, the Old Man and Old Woman, reach for each other from across the stage but the chairs get in the way. Then an abrupt silence falls. Things, possessions, get in the way and block communication, separating us one from the other. It’s a chilling image.
Ionesco’s famous three-act play, Rhinoceros, in which one individual fights off people who are turning into stampeding rhinos, tenses into terror the same way The Chairs should. What are the imaginary guests expecting? Just as in Becket’s Waiting for Godot, everyone waits; but nothingness is reality. That’s the great big, existentialist joke that formed the cornerstone for the Theatre of the Absurd.
Scena’s The Chairs is a noble effort. The flaw, however, lies not in the actors who are the stars, but in the director, whose reach exceeds his grasp. More naturalistic, believable human behavior would help. Toning down the hype would give Ionesco’s brilliant stage chatter a chance.
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission).
When: Thursday through Sundays until March 30, 2008.. Sunday shows are at 3 p.m.; all other shows are at 8 p.m.
Where: The Warehouse Theatre, 1021 7th Street N.W., Washington D.C. 20001.
Info: Call box office (703) 683-2824 or consult website: www.scenatheatre.org.