Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
Lots of definitions describe what is known as theater of the absurd, but they all agree that this post-WWII art form puts forth the ludicrous, even farcical nature of human life by using confusing, illogical and basically meaningless action and dialogue. Eugene Ionesco, one of the most heralded playwrights of the genre, penned The Chairs that opened to an enthusiastic reception at Flint Repertory Theatre Friday.
Often billed as an absurdist comedy, there certainly are comical moments as an aged couple living in Paris try desperately to come to come up with a message worth passing on to mankind; to give life a meaning of sorts.
Kay Kelly as the Old Woman and Michael Kelly as the Old Man range about their disheveled, war-torn apartment chatting about nothing at first. The apartment appears to be water locked, on an island of sorts. The Kellys are amazing from the beginning as they banter lovingly about nothing in particular. We soon begin to realize these two are and have been alone together for quite sometime.
Michael’s Old Man seems to grasp that now, at age 95, he has only a short time left and has failed to accomplish anything meaningful aside from his self-proclaimed position as “general factotum”. Michael’s moment of regression into childhood is both poignant and distressing as Kay becomes a projection of his mother even going so far as to sit on her lap as he cries.
Indeed, Kay’s Old Woman, herself 94, must also realize the impending end of what seems a meaningless life as she encourages her husband that to express himself may possibly bring back all they’ve lost. In her constant buoying up and encouraging of this clearly confused man, Kay’s portrayal is both comic and tender but also heartrending.
Ultimately, the Old Man’s decision to engage an Orator to give his message to the world begins an onslaught of unseen visitors invited to hear his wisdom. As they hurry to find chairs for each newcomer, the stage begins to fill with “characters”. We hear one side of each conversation, but can easily imagine the unheard side. Soon the supply of chairs runs out and all manner of stools, pots, and ledges are employed until the area is packed and the two householders find themselves stranded apart – one on the far right and the other on the far left.
Now, it’s important to say here that this production is performed in the Bower’s black box playing area that brings the audience into very close proximity with the stage. Intriguingly, the chairs nearly mirror the arrangement of chairs in the audience so that they could easily begin to identify with the assembled invisible beings on the stage. Perhaps to encourage this very effect, Ionesco has painted the occupations of this group with a broad brush.
We won’t reveal the final scene, but will say the character of the Orator (Harvey) is not what we expected and clearly was not what the Old Man and Woman had in mind either.
Michael and Kay Kelly meld perfectly into these characters as they portray the pathos and the satire that is combined here. This remarkable performance is one they were meant to do.
Director Alex Bodine, scenic designer Andrew Licout, and lighting designer Jennifer Fok have returned once again to bring their professional expertise to bear on this production. They are a formidable team as they bring this theatrically rich production to the Bower stage. With its bombed-out appearance, the apartment takes on a marooned feeling exactly right for this story. As the chairs begin to multiply, the briefly lit glimpses of a shoreline-like raft of chairs in the distance adds symbolism and ghostly meaning.
The Chairs is a historical and genre-specific play that isn’t blithely performed. It is well worth the experience. Go for it!
The Chairs continues at Flint Repertory Theatre through November 10. For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-237-7333 or access online at flintrep.org/tickets