An old man and woman living alone on an island; their humble clothes are of another century. They tell stories, quibble, and reminisce; but there’s something very odd going on: though they evidently speak English, their words don’t really make sense, nor do their actions seem particularly rational. Though the old man has been a janitor all his life, he (she addresses him as “Cabbage”) has evidently discovered a secret that will solve the problems of mankind, and has sent invitations to all the influential people in the world to tell them about it. And when the guests show up, things really get weird. Are the old couple mad? Senile? Playing some kind of elaborate game? We quickly realize that reasonable questions like this get us nowhere, for the play is The Chairs, by Eugene Ionesco, the original master of Theatre of the Absurd.
The play takes place in its own artistic dimension, like abstract painting or music: it is what it is. And it could hardly ask for a finer, more respectful presentation than given by the Alchemist Theater. Under the direction of Leda Hoffman, with help from dramaturg Emily Penick (who also both worked on the Alchemist’s excellent King Lear), and especially with rich, detailed performances by Tim Linn and Kelly Doherty, the challenging script takes form as an extended verbal opera; Linn’s deep soulful cello playing counterpoint to Doherty’s insistent viola. Though the story is threadbare at best, they have done the painstaking but absolutely necessary work of making every emotional moment clearly recognizable, so we never feel completely alienated. Aaron Kopek’s detailed sculptural set seems bigger than the tiny stage actually is; with blue light filtering through cracks in the walls, we get the sense of a ramshackle house on the sea at the end of the world.
Reportedly, when Ionesco was a child in France, he had a vision of sorts: he felt himself floating above the world in serene peace. Sadly, when his vision ended, he sensed the world as vapid and meaningless in contrast. Like many artists of the post World War II generation, Ionesco’s works refute logic and rationality, take a cynical view of politics, and reject grand ideological or philosophical narratives. At very least, The Chairs lampoons theater’s emancipatory pretensions: strangers filling seats to witness some work of genius—ridiculous! Today, we live in Ionesco’s world; our culture at large has never been more skeptical about grand visions and political salvation. We want artists to ask questions, not to try and answer them: the messageless message and gentle anti-authoritarianism of The Chairs just don’t pack that much sting anymore. So what can we get from this mid-20th century artifact?
First, we can appreciate the work of sensitive, skilled artists bringing a minor modern classic to full life; next, we can relish the play as a musical score, its repetitive rhythms culminating in a crescendo of chiming doorbells and thundering knocks, as the guests arrive and the old man shouts for more and more chairs in a surreal halleluiah chorus of absurdity. Then, the play’s punch line ending, coming after such a build-up, still has the power to both shock and amuse. Finally, perhaps the most valuable thing about this brand of intellectual anarchy takes place when we leave the theater. Spending over an hour in Ionesco’s world seems to clear out our mental cobwebs, short-circuiting our habitual perceptions to create what modernist estheticians called “defamiliarization.” Strangely, for a brief time, you might experience the reverse of Ionesco’s post-epiphanic bummer: your perceptions scrubbed of their customary veneer, you can see the world afresh. Stepping out after the show, millions of perfect snowflakes glittered in the streetlights, each one a perfect hexagonal doily of crystal lacework. Winter seemed wondrous, miraculous. That’s worth the price of a seat right there.