“A work of art is above all an adventure of the mind,” claimed playwright Eugène Ionesco. As a foremost pioneer of the Theatre of the Absurd, along with Beckett, Adamov, and Genet, it is no surprise that his plays take audiences on a theatrical trek beyond the bizarre. Kitchen Dog Theater’s intricate and studied take on Ionesco’s one-act play The Chairs is a wild ride that bears provocative fruit.
KD Artistic Company Member Tim Johnson crafts a coherent (is that possible with Ionesco?) vision of isolation, futility, and the emptiness of language and communication with clockwork precision, and some of the finest chemistry between two actors seen on stage in quite a while.
The play is set some time in the distant future in an indeterminate place near water. An Old Man (Raphael Parry) and an Old Woman (Rhonda Boutté) rail at each other, echo each other’s sentences, and argue at each other in this desolate space of washed-out pastiches of assorted grays, multiple doors, and a bare wooden floor (Scott Osborne’s ingenious set design).
From the very outset, Bouttés hunched-over micro-shuffles, and Parry’s gruff pronouncements establish the comedic absurdity (there is that word again) of this unique show. Soon though, the play begins to come alive with building tension and incremental verve. The tense, syncopated, and sometimes unsettling rhythm interplaying with the seemingly disconnected dialogue become fascinating and deliciously suspenseful all at once.
Many “guests” begin to arrive and chairs quickly start to multiply to accommodate them. They are all waiting for The Orator (a hilariously over-the-top Brian Witkowicz) to reveal the Old Man’s message to the world. The pace quickens, and more fanciful sleights of chairs are required to keep up. It’s like a surreal dream version of the classic I Love Lucy chocolate factory sequence. Kudos to stage manager Ruth Stephenson and assistant stage manager Jacob Hughes for keeping things going smoothly backstage.
The transcendent experience of the play lies in the interaction between Parry’s “lost little orphan” of an old man, and Bouttés otherworldly old woman. They construct a brilliant pas de deux of back and forth wordplay and exchanges that amount to an astute deconstruction of an old couple’s relationship writ large.
It is a shame we do not get to see more of Ionesco’s twisted genius on stage these days, so it is as treat to see it done so well here. The Chairs is a fantastic showing from all involved is only get better with more shows under their belts. It staggers the mind.
Photo: Raphael Parry as the Old Man in The Chairs (credit: Matt Mrozek)