Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The play starts off with an old married couple talking–in a strangely rambling and disjointed way–about their shared stories and regrets. The Old Woman (Izard is hilariously cheeky and convincing as a repressed and long married wife) periodically drifts into a string of nonsensical rhyming words and repetitions. The Old Man (Frank X is inscrutable and affecting) seems to lose track of the conversation entirely. The Old Man suddenly announces that he has invited a large crowd to hear his most important message and hired an Orator (Alex Olson's brief performance is devastating) to deliver it. When the guests start to arrive things get really bizarre.
The guests are invisible to the audience but clearly present before the Old Woman and Old Man. Each guest is greeted enthusiastically and given a chair to sit in while they wait for the Orator to arrive. As the stage fills up with empty chairs and unseen visitors, the Old Man and Old Woman become increasingly anxious. It is uncanny how effectively Izard and X convey the sense of being stuck in an overly crowded space while on stage with nothing but empty chairs.
The set, lighting, and sound designs also assist with the illusion of an invisible crowd. John Burkland's dynamic lighting and Burns' vivid sound design raise the emotional stakes, keeping the audience engaged throughout.
The Chairs does not have a traditional plot arc or character development. For much of the time it is not even clear whether the events depicted on stage real or just a shared delusion. Yet Ionesco's drama delivers powerful insight into the purpose (or lack thereof) of our lives and the nature of our relationships. The empty chairs, the interplay between isolation and claustrophobia, the unspent urgency of the Old Man's desire to deliver his message all work together make us question what we spend our lives doing and why.
The cast and crew Burns has assembled at the Sedgwick Theater does a magnificent job pulling the meaning and power out of Ionesco's masterpiece. It is hard to imagine a production more entertaining and accessible. Of course, someone looking for a traditional theatrical experience may end up frustrated, but anyone brave enough to try seeing the world in a new way should get to the Sedgwick Theater for this epic production.
The Chairs runs through October 23, 2022, at Quintessence Theatre Group, Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit QuintessenceTheatre.org or call 215-987-4450.