Also see Susan's review of For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again
Eugène Ionesco’s play The Chairs,, which premiered in Paris in 1952, is considered a prominent example of the theatrical movement eventually known as Theatre of the Absurd. It uses non sequiturs and aggressively non-realistic settings as a way to convey the general outlook of meaninglessness and uncertainty many intellectuals found in their lives following World War II.
As part of its new International Theatre Series, Round House Theatre has brought French director Alain Timar’s rethinking of The Chairs to its black box space in Silver Spring, Md. The problem here is that few Americans are familiar enough with the play in the first place to understand what Timar is reinterpreting.
Ionesco wrote the play’s characters, known simply as Man and Woman, as an ancient couple who have been married for an eternity. The action of the 90-minute, one-act play concerns a large party being hosted by the couple, but the guests never appear; they are represented by the diverse group of chairs scattered around the stage. Timar has designed a visually stunning set design, adapted for the Round House space by N. Eric Knauss, which features a rear wall completely made up of chairs, in addition to the chairs that fill the playing space.
In contrast to the playwright’s instructions, Timar has cast the roles with youthful Marcus Kyd and Jessica Browne-White, with punkish, brightly dyed hair and in-your-face costumes (designed by Denise Umland) that feature aggressive printed designs and metal trim. The program notes suggest that the young actors will take on the elderly roles as an acting exercise, but that never seems apparent in their combative, sexual, explosive performances: they throw themselves against the walls, run back and forth, whirl around, and fall on each other. This manic physicality does provide an interesting tension when placed against the gentility of the characters’ speech.
What, then, does this add to the play? The action shows the characters welcoming a series of “guests” – the (invisible) aged general in his wheelchair; the (phantom) elderly woman, once a great beauty, represented by an upholstered chair with a floor-length skirt; small, brightly colored plastic chairs standing in for children. Without familiarity with the traditional staging, it’s hard to know what is different about the performances of these young performers, and the effect they have on Ionesco’s script.
The Chairs, then, is an interesting enterprise, although one that starts to drag as the number of “guests” grows and the movement of the chairs becomes more frantic. Through all of that, though, the ultimate message of the play remains clear, its sadness and sense of waste.
Round House Theatre