All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Eugène Ionesco is categorized as an absurdist. The dialogue in his plays often reads as non-sequitur. His characters can rampage, pose, cower, or make declarations at unexpected times. Fantastic events or pronouncements, using the most literal meaning of fantastic, might occur. An Ionescoan world is topsy-turvy, at the mercy of extremes, hidden from many of the denizens of it, eccentric, and offbeat.
Yet the virtue of Ionesco is the clarity by which we, his audience, realize truths of the world within his metaphors, anomalies, inversions, and juxtapositions of quiet and commotion.
Philadelphia has been lucky in recent years. All four staple plays in Ionesco’s oeuvre have been seen within the last two years, “The Bald Soprano” in a tame but effective production by Curio Theatre, “Rhinoceros,” “Exit the King,” and now “The Chairs” in illuminating stagings by a woman who obviously knows what makes Ionesco tick, Tina Brock.
I mentioned the virtue of Ionesco. The virtue of Brock is while she maintains a great playwright’s skewed vision of a skewed world, a world in which people rattle on and knock about believing they’re making sense and tending to the important when they’re really engaging in the vaulted expression of the mundane, a world in which obvious threats have to take monstrous form before anyone takes notice or action, a world in which paranoia, overweening pride, and some notion that we can defeat mortality, she finds the logic and the means to bring forth Ionesco’s clarity and display his genius.
Which is coupled with her own.
Brock enjoys dressing her characters in the outlandish and putting them in settings that are more fanciful than realistic. The enjoys the movement and the use of comic voices Ionesco’s work affords. Her productions, “Rhinoceros” and “Exit the King” more than the more straightforward and pseudo-realistic “The Chairs,” are stylized but in a way that elicits admiration for Brock’s cleverness rather than wonder at her type of theatricality.
The point is Brock knows what she’s doing. She has a full, clear understanding of the text, and she knows how to put it on a stage while balancing the comedy, pathos, and even tragedy inherent in Ionesco’s works. Brock can make the rhinoceros roar with threatening purpose, show the way a kingdom crumbles from the point of view of one who thinks he’s too crucial to die — too powerful to fail? — and make it poignant when two people are so satisfied they know all there is to know and lived as well as anyone could live, they commit simultaneous suicide out of sheer and blissful contentment there’s no more to explore and nothing new to enjoy.
Brock’s current production of “The Chairs,” part of both the Fringe Arts Festival and a regular Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium run, is a truly grand achievement — funny, entertaining, stylish, and piercing at once.
Let’s start with Ionesco’s language, which in uncomprehending or slapdash hands could favor the non-sequitur or seem like random blather (as one part of “The Chair” must, and delightfully so),
Brock knows how a pace it, knows how the make the utterances of two primary characters, Old Woman and Old Man, an ongoing aria that makes sense as a way people, especially a couple that’s been married for 77 years, might communicate with each other. Rather than having Ionesco’s words sound disjointed or seem like a collection of gibberish, Brock and Bob Schmidt, who play the woman and man, turn into the random, but plausible, chatter of two people who have lived together for a long time and who fill their hours making idle comments and observations, only something coalescing phrases into conversation or creating a real volley of dialogue/ Communication between Brock’s and Schmidt’s characters have a familiar pace and pitch to it. It is the banter of people involved in a task or just passing time.
Yet it’s telling. In a way Ionesco and Brock bring to the fore. The couple’s main theme is happiness and how proud they are that some revelation of the Old Man’s is considered so vital to the well-being and continuation of mankind, dwindled, the text implies, by some global catastrophe prior to the time of the play, another flood perhaps considering the couple lives adjacent to the sea on all sides of their domicile, that a special ceremony has been convened at the couple’s home so it can be pronounced to the immediate world en masse. All in the vicinity and beyond have been invited. The man gets tongue-tied speaking in public, so an orator, deftly played by Tomas Dura in classic raiment designed by Erica Hoelscher, is hired to deliver his sage salvo. The emperor the land the couple inhabit comes to hear the life-defining words. Other dignitaries mix with commoners as the crowd gathers to hear the Old Man’s affirming secret, and the couple scrambles to scrounge every chair their seaside house holds to accommodate the constantly swelling horde of visitors.
The greeting of guests and gathering and placing of chairs provides diversion and physical business. Ionesco is up to much more, and Brock is keen at displaying it.
More importantly, within the traded comments of the ancient husband and wife, you hear things that make you doubt either of them could stumble upon the formula for perfection. All of the vicissitudes of life come out in the various maunderings of the focal couple. You hear enthusiastic praise, but you also hear hurtful and lasting recriminations.
This man and woman have had a full life, and that includes trouble, suspicions, gossip, marital acrimony, marital contentment, children going off to make their own lives, accolades deserved and not, slights and oversights deserved or not. Ionesco shows people creeping through life experiencing all most people do, perhaps with a larger scooch of elegance expected from a man who is hinted to be a scholar and a pair that is known to and hobnobs with potentates.
A life is all of its tediousness and glory is what Ionesco presents. Brock, Schmidt, and Dura make it all entertaining to see unfold and accessible. Brock opens the gate to let you savor and admire Ionesco’s cunning and clarity. She and her cohorts, in their wonderful, spot-on line readings, physical business, and range of attitudes and emotions. Illuminate the futility even a life of recognized accomplishment can be, the joy such a life brings futile or not, mainly because futility doesn’t enter many people’s minds, — You have to be Ionesco or Tolstoy to express Weltschmertz so deeply and comprehensively, Ionesco doing it with a glint in his eye. — and the illusion of value a gathering awaiting your apotheosis of a pronouncement, with the emperor among those attending, might bring.
Ionesco, in his shrewd and winsome way, forces you to consider what life might be about, whether the Old Man is the one who can tell you or not. Brock makes the journey delightful but her smart, perceptive way of bringing Ionesco to the stage. Her production of “The Chairs” is enthrallingly entertaining from start to finish. Through the comedy and images of banality, Ionesco gets to display his profundity, which seems when you sort all out as carefully as Brock did, in great supply and worth noting. Absurdity is the way to go to find lucidity.
Bravo to Brock and the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy cast, designers, and crew. The give and take between Brock and Schmidt in their roles is extraordinary. Words and their delivery make this production, and Brock and Schmidt are masters in making each phrase, its tone, and its timing count. Diction is as perfect as the expression with which a line is said.
Wigs and makeup, especially the wigs, add to the feel of Brock’s production. Schmidt wears a shock of neatly parted white hair that, once you know he’s a scholar and philosopher, makes you think of Bertrand Russell or Thomas Edison with his hair thicker. Brock’s Old Woman looks like a cross between Miss Havisham in bridal garb and a duenna in gauzy clothing. Her wig is long and stark white. She wears a diaphonous pale pink gown with hot pink trim on its edges and a sheer veil-like head covering. Brock and Schmidt seem like an old couple that dress from dinner but in clothes a decade or two out of date in style and formality, clothes that suit a scholar and woman who seems to have known wealth throughout her life. Dura’s costume, straight out of a Louis XIV vignette or Restoration play, is marvelous. It suggest the cavalier and the narcissistic, and Dura takes pleasure in posing in it and using it to suggest the pompousness and self-importance of The Orator.
Ionesco is not easy to bring to the stage, as worthy and as welcome as his plays are when they emerge. Brocks sees through absurdity to the more essential things Ionesco is saying, and saying so well. She, thank goodness, avoids daft for daft’s sake and finds Ionesco’s core while also skillfully mining his humor and giving her audience a good time.
“The Chairs,” produced by Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, runs through Sunday, September 25, at Walnut 5, on the fifth floor of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $22 and can be obtained by calling 215-285-0472 or by visiting www.idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org.