Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Aurora Theatre Does an Excellent Production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs

Also see Richard's review of Nightfall

One of the giants of the cult called "Theatre of the Absurd" is Eugene Ionesco. His play The Chairs premiered in Paris in 1952. The audiences failed to acclaim the play as a masterpiece or recognize it as a dramatic shift in the nature of theatre. Few showed up to see the play. One critic said there were some nights when the empty chairs in the audience outnumbered the empty chairs on the stage. The Chairs started to build momentum four years later when Samuel Beckett and Jean Anouilh became its biggest supporters. Mr. Anouilh called the play "a masterpiece." He said "I believe this to be better than Strindberg, because it has its ‘black' humor, à la Moliere, in a manner that is at times terribly funny, because it is horrifying and laughable, poignant and always true."

I saw the wonderful revival of the play at the John Golden Theatre in May 1998 with two of the greatest living British actors, Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. This is 90 minutes of brilliant eccentric Theater. Eugene Ionesco is an acquired taste and - like his other contemporaries, "absurdists" Beckett, Genet and Tardieu - takes time to appreciate. These writers were creating works that communicated the idea that the human situation was essentially absurd, that life is without meaning and communication all but impossible. As I grow older, I have become more appreciative of their writings.

The Chairs is the story of a geriatric couple who live alone on an island. The Old Man (Gerald Hiken) is a one hundred year old tormented janitor. His wife, the Old Woman (Barbara Oliver), alternately babies and hassles her husband about his never rising in the world. She repeats, "You could have been a great king, a great president, a great scientist, etc., etc., etc." They have invited famous guests to come to the island to hear a message for the world that the Old Man has been waiting nearly a century to deliver. He has hired a famous orator to deliver this world shaking message on how to save mankind. All of the action takes place on the night that this message will be delivered.

The guests (all phantoms) arrive, and they include people from all walks of life, from the emperor down to the picture framer. The couple converse with these phantoms as they enter the room and each time one enters, a chair is brought forward from a closet on the left side of the stage. They talk to a colonel, old flames, a police inspector, a journalist and even small children. Soon the stage is full of empty chairs: large chairs, small chairs, baby chairs and some that only a fairy could sit upon. Both of the elderly persons are contradictory and perplexed as persons enter the hall. The Old Man tries to explain his philosophy which is something between Karl Marx and capitalism.

Eugene Ionesco explained his play best when he said, "I have tried to deal with emptiness, frustration, with this world, at once fleeting and crushing. The characters I have used are not fully conscious of their spiritual rootlessness, but they feel it instinctively and emotionally." One can see that their lives are empty of meaningful communication.

Gerald Hiken and Barbara Oliver are two of the Bay Area's best actors and they are splendid in their roles. They hold the audience in the palm of their hand throughout the whole 90 minutes. Mr. Hiken plays the role more comic than Richard Briers in the New York production. He is cantankerous, pretentious, sycophantic and a needy delight as the old janitor preparing for the "message for all mankind." Barbara Oliver is every bit as superb as his sprightly wife and co-conspirator. Also in the cast is Trish Mulholland who plays the silent orator at the end. It is an excellent cameo, and her wonderful walk, like someone who is very smug in their life, is beautifully accomplished. Even when she attempts to orate, she shows a baffled exasperation.

Gregory Dunham's set of The Chairs is interesting as it has a weathered gazebo roof in the shape of a crown suspended over the three quarter round stage. There is a revolving door on the back right side wall and a regular door on the left side with a window "facing the sea" in the center. The staging by director Cliff Mayotte is very adroit. Jim Cave's lighting moves with the various moods of the "tragic comedy," and David Reyes creates emblematic sounds of a seaside atmosphere.

If you like Theatre of the Absurd and you want to see some excellent acting, this is the play for you. The Chairs plays through Sunday, March 9th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit for more information. Their next production will be The Partition by Ira Hauptman, which opens on April 11.

Photo: David Allen

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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