Alone Again, Unnaturally
In a New Staging of Ionesco's 'The Chairs' the Terror of Isolation Takes a Back Seat to Comedy
In an old lighthouse that appears to be sinking fast into some unnamed ocean, an old man sits atop a high platform, quietly looking out a window through binoculars at the water surrounding him. The water can be heard stroking the rocks and the walls of the lighthouse, moving gracefully in its age-old dance, back and forth, quietly and smoothly, like the patchy light that reveals the silent old man. Who just sits. Sits and looks and looks and sits. Looks into ... darkness. What can he be looking for? The image is shattering in its isolation, and while there are other startling images in this State Theater Company Equity production, none of them quite manages to match the power and, ultimately, the strange beauty of this initial impression.
Wish I could stop right there. If other sundry details would ultimately clarify this Eugene Ionesco piece, I'd make every effort. But now I am left to wonder whether it is possible to convey a supposedly accurate picture of what I experienced. Can words, in a single paragraph (or in five, or in 50), truly capture the essence of something I've seen or experienced? By describing what I saw, felt, and perceived, can anyone else ever completely, or partially, even minutely, understand what I saw, felt, and perceived? Given our isolation as individuals in the face of a world seemingly ruled by chance and cruel, cold fate, is real communication -- no, more than that -- real connection even possible?
Maybe. Maybe not.
This is the essence of what theorist Martin Esslin wrote in the early 1960s in his book that gave a name to what has since come to be acknowledged as a modern theatrical movement, The Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin recognized that a representative group of contemporary playwrights -- among them Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet, and Ionesco -- were creating works that communicated the idea that the human situation is essentially absurd, that life is without meaning and communication all but impossible. Their influence still can be felt today, especially in the works of such modern playwrights as Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet.
Eugene Ionesco is considered by many to be the father of the Theatre of the Absurd, and this play to be a seminal work. The production values found here certainly support this sense of importance. A more accomplished set designer in Austin than Christopher McCollum cannot be found, and his work here is a thing of beauty and terror. He has raked the proscenium stage of the State Theater severely, from upstage right to downstage left, almost as if it -- and everything on it -- is about to fall into the laps of the audience. He surrounds this tilting floor with a huge dome made of wooden slats, through which colored light, provided by designer David Nancarrow, often leaks, making patterns on the floor that appear to be nothing so much as the criss-crossing bars of a cage. On either side of the stage is a tall, tall ladder leading to a tiny window set high in the dome of the roof. Surrounding the stage are 10 doors, each with two bare bulbs above them -- except the center door, which is painted a tarnished gold and has more lights than the others.
Before the play begins, we hear sounds other than the sea, all provided by designer Ken Huncovsky, that do not seem to fit into the vast wooden dome before us, sounds of traffic and sirens and planes. After we first see the old man (portrayed with almost manic energy by Jaston Williams), an old woman (played by Karen Jones, matching Williams mania for mania) almost immediately appears on the scene, drawing him away from the window and down into the large room. Both are dressed in baggy, shabby, long-worn clothes provided by designer Buffy Manners, their long gray hair hanging in their faces. The pair engages in a series of almost nonsensical discussions that are ostensibly about the past, jumping from dialect to dialect and subject to subject, and both Williams and Jones play their respective characters as people who seem to be teetering on the edge of sanity. That impression seems to be confirmed when they begin welcoming the guests who have come to hear the old man deliver, on this special night, his message to the world, because the guests don't exist. Each guest is provided a chair, and the pair greet each of the guests and converse with them. Sometimes the guests interact with each other -- at least they do according to the two old people. But there's never anyone there. Nothing but a bunch of empty chairs.
Given the polish and professionalism of all those concerned, it's most surprising that much of the production doesn't seem to work. Ionesco subtitled The Chairs "A Tragic Farce." This easily can be seen as an oxymoron and an excellent example of Ionesco's sense of humor. But director Richard Jones, who also doubles in the role of the affected Orator that arrives at the very end of the play to assist the old man in delivering his message to the world, seems to have taken the "farce" far too seriously. From the beginning, Jaston Williams and Karen Jones utilize exactly the kind of tempo and energy you would expect from farce, but almost nothing they do really works in the context of this play.
Though we aren't dealing with "reality" in the usual sense of the word here, any work of theatre must be internally consistent. Given the setting, the costumes, and the subject matter, how is it that these two old people give such a polished, note-perfect "show" for each other and for the "guests" they invite to this lighthouse that eventually is full of empty chairs? Their multiple dialects are effective, the various characters they put on are broad and well delineated, they look like well-oiled performers, and they seem to be having the time of their lives. Yet everything surrounding them, from the set to the costumes to the lights to the details of their conversations and, most especially, their actions, points to a desperation that we almost never see played out on the stage. They are alone, certainly, but they also are desperate to be recognized for something, even if it is for nothing more than their worth as individual human beings.
In the face of the eternal, in the face of thousands of years of human history, in the face of sheer numbers, what, exactly, is the worth of a single human life? This is a large part of the struggle that is played out in The Chairs, but this struggle is not portrayed on the stage in this production. In fact, there is no struggle in this production other than, seemingly, the struggle to find some way to force the material to be entertaining. No dramatic tension is created because the characters aren't struggling against anything but the material. You can't make something funny. It either is or it isn't. If you ask an audience to laugh -- as is often the case in this production -- chances are quite good that they won't.
In other words, director Jones doesn't appear to have trusted Ionesco's material. He hasn't allowed his actors the opportunity to play for and to each other in a meaningful way. Rather, they seem to be playing to the audience, and this despite the fact that in his script Ionesco never suggests that the characters address the audience that actually is in the theatre. On the contrary, he states rather succinctly and consistently that the characters, including the Orator, address the empty chairs. Slavish interpretation of the script is not ever necessary, certainly, but if you're going to play against what's there, you need to have a well-considered reason. Is it possible to feel isolated and alone in a theatre full of people? Yes, and it could happen with this play. It does not happen with this production.
The Chairs runs through Aug. 5 at the State Theater, 719 Congress. Call 472-5470 for info.