Make sure you pull up a chair for
Can a plotless play about a couple of creaky nonagenarians, a stage full of empty chairs and the meaninglessness of existence really beguile an audience for one hour and 40 minutes? Absolutely. From the moment the lights came up on opening night to the hush when they went down, the Guthrie Lab's surreal yet touchingly human production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play, The Chairs, held its audience in the cup of its withered hand.
Ionesco wrote The Chairs in 1952. The horrors of WWI were still fresh, and the new threat of nuclear annihilation robbed existence of meaning.
On Kyle Chepulis' bleak, warehouse-like set, we watch the Old Woman and the Old Man hold reality at arm's length by creating an often-contradictory world of memory and illusion. They've been married for 75 years and live an isolated existence on an island. This night, we watch them act out a present in a crush of unseen people, whom they have invited to listen to the Old Man's message, which is to be delivered by a great orator. That's the plot, more or less. It might not sound like much, but Daniel Aukin directs Chairs confident of this difficult play's funniness, and funny and disquieting it is.
Aukin has excellent help at hand.
In one of her strongest roles in a long career of strong roles, Barbara Bryne's eccentric Old Woman beams authenticity. A dropped hem hangs from her shabby dress, and she waddles like a shapeless old woman. She's the one who keeps things going, and she cajoles her bored husband into playing their time-passing games. "Imitate the month of February," she pleads, and she's tickled with the result. "You're so gifted," she tells him. "You could have been anything," and she reels off a list of professions, then adds, with an impeccable sense of comic timing, "anything, if only you'd had the talent and the ambition."
The Old Woman is part wife and part mother to the Old Man. When he pushes her around playfully on a wheeled stairway, she coos with intimate little noises of anxiety and pleasure; when he sits in her lap and cries for his mama, she pats and reassures him, as if he were a little boy. Two old shoes, they live deep in the affections and strains of long marriage.
Christopher McCann as the Old Man feels less ancient, but he catches his character's talent for self-defeat. He's a saggy, rumpled man. His shirt hangs out and he wears suspenders over his shrunken cardigan that has just one button left. At her prompting, he begins to tell a story that cannot get beyond the disappearance of the city of Paris.
But when the door buzzer sounds, they are distracted from the arrested story. The Old Woman drags an assortment of chairs on stage, and they welcome and have one-sided conversations with unseen guests. The Old Man flirts with an erstwhile love, even though her nose has grown large, and she's so stooped that he has to bend to talk to her. In retaliation, the Old Woman takes up with a randy colonel and becomes almost orgasmic up against a ladder.
As the guests arrive with escalating frequency and she hauls on stage more and more old chairs, suitcases, barrels, anything that can be sat upon, the old couple shuffle and squeeze, as though the room were actually packed tight with people, and they drop into brief vaudeville-like routines. Surreal lighting cues the arrival of the unseen emperor, and the Old Man climbs a ladder to catch his attention and begins to speak.
He spills meaningless phrases in tones heroic and noble. "The self and the individual are the same," he intones. "We have suffered and learned much." "I am a lightning rod for catastrophe." Perched on a ladder across the room, the Old Woman admires and encourages him, echoing his sentence ends.
In an amusing moment that is as bizarre to the two characters as it is to the audience, a real flesh and blood orator arrives. Charles Shuminski plays the orator with the theatrical flair of an old music hall magician. But when it's time for him to perform and sum up the Old Man's life, he's as mute as a deaf and dumb person.
Matt Frey's light and Reid Rejsa's sound designs are almost as present as extra characters and help to propel the play toward the emptiness of its end. Now that the shadow of mass terrorism slants across our lives, the play gains new weight. What is the meaning of being in an unpredictable world?
The Chairs runs through November 24. Tuesdays-Saturdays and Sundays, 7:00 p.m. The Guthrie Lab, 700 North First St. Minneapolis. $26-$30. Call 612-377-2224. Toll Free call (877) 44 STAGE.