BWW Reviews: Ionesco's Absurdist THE CHAIRS @ A Noise Within

By: Apr. 12, 2011
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The Chairs
by Eugene Ionesco
directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
A Noise Within, Glendale
through May 21

Eugene Ionesco's classic absurdist play The Chairs (1952) has had many interpretations through the years including political and religious, from soup to nuts. Now onstage at A Noise Within in a marvelously crafted production, The Chairs boasts a tremendous trio of actors under the expert direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott.

An Old Woman (Deborah Strang) and an Old Man (Geoff Elliott) in the waning years of their life together play out a charade - or is it? - in which there are throngs of people invited to their abode to hear a first and final public presentation of the Old Man's message about the meaning of life. Before the preparations, they sit in two chairs reminiscing about ambition and what he could have become. They exude a state of boredom, but at times mixed with anxiety and even some jubilation about what is to come. Once the bell rings and the guests start arriving - they are all invisible - they pull out a multitude of chairs to accommodate the crowd and start to cavort and converse with the people in one-sided conversations, again reminiscing about better days gone by. The man's memories are of the war, as he is a general factotum, whereas the woman's are more of an overtly flirtatious and wildly sexual nature. Some stories are contradictory: she claims a son; he says they have no children; she says he adored his parents; he claims to have left his mother in a ditch to die. Once the guests have all arrived, the emperor makes a grand entrance - again invisible, is seated on a throne, and once the two settle the crowd down for the orator, who has been asked to deliver the Old Man's speech, the two commit suicide by jumping out the window into the river. The orator, a deaf mute, tries to address the audience, but nothing comes out except incomprehensible sounds. He then tries to write the meaning on a slate with words that make no sense.

As to my personal interpretation, two people live out their final days of desperation trying to make sense of their lives. They want a throng around them but are forced to imagine the guests. Maybe they are the last people on earth, or maybe their friends no longer come by because they've stopped caring or have themselves passed on. When the orator arrives, he is a symbol of death and the two people depart, killing themselves in a way of their own choosing. The orator cannot speak, as there is no message, no apparent meaning to life. It is as it is. When the orator leaves the stage, there is a long pause and then a crowd of people is heard talking. Life goes on without the man and woman. Ionesco's language of repetition, like humiliation, miliation, miliation or majesty, jesty, jesty adds much to the message of fultility, as do the contradictory stories about their lives. What are we to believe and who cares?

Like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the whole piece comes off as a giant vaudeville act with comedy masking the sadness of the drama. How successfully two people live with and play off of each other depends entirely on them. If they choose, they enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Strang and Elliott are wonderfully vibrant and physically adept throughout, making us believe the presence of people where there are none. Strang is simply great reliving her sexual escapades and Elliott just being the totally human, humble servant that he has always been. Their comic timing is impeccable, thanks to precise direction from Rodriguez-Elliott. Andy Stokan is fine in his brief appearance as the orator.

This is an excellent representation of Ionesco's work told simply and energetically with great pacing to avoid any gaps in continuity. The Chairs plays in repertory with Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and Tennessee Williams' Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
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