In his note on Cutting Ball's production of The Chairs, translator Rob Melrose calls Eugène Ionesco's tragic farce "a valentine to the imagination." In this production, directed by Annie Elias, imagination loves you back, but not without playing tricks on you.
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The Old Man (David Sinaiko) and the Old Woman (Tamar Cohn) live in isolation on a gloomy island. Paris, they report, was destroyed many years ago, and they haven't seen other people for at least 10 years. He's "a marshal of lodgings," (aka) a superintendent, which means he spends most of the time looking out his window at the sea, claiming he can see shadows even in the dark. She's his eager yes-woman, indulging her "lamb's" every complaint, every delusion of grandeur; at times, her delusions for him are even grander than his are: "You could have been chief king," she scolds, if only he had applied himself.
Her high esteem for her husband's abilities comes in part from his "message," which, he claims, will save the human race, or at least get the couple "a street named after us." He can't deliver it, though: "I'm so bad at expressing myself," he says, and we believe him. After some early lucid moments, language starts to trip them up. They keep trying to combine the words "laugh" and "after"; the Old Woman measures an ingredient as "an hour of flour." Gradually, the language dissolves into gibberish, and the couple have no idea what they're saying. (Ionesco explored a similar conceit in The Bald Soprano.)
Yet they remain convinced that their conversation is comprehensible, the message is real, and that the guests they've invited are actually coming. This is where the play's title, as well as its appeal to the imagination, comes in. The doorbell starts ringing, and in walk guests, invisible to us, but very real, and in rich detail, to the Old Man, who gives his wife just enough clues so that she can play along with his vision. He also gives her an order: Grab a chair for every guest.
A wild assortment of attic-quality seats soon crams the stage. At first they look like the pieces of a piteous game for which only the elderly couple knows the rules. Yet as the joke stretches on for a preposterously long time, and the pretending takes on a frantic urgency, the chairs seem to acquire distinct, diverse bodies in their seats.
It's a canny theatrical move and a sumptuous opportunity for the imagination. But the play is also very clearly of the product of a particular time and place, so much so that, despite a few moments of theater magic, The Chairs as presented here is very much a museum piece. Ionesco, one of the first absurdist playwrights, wrote the play in 1952, and his play speaks to the political anxieties of the postwar period, not so much to our own. The Old Man's message, which is at once messianic and nonsensical, and his crowd, at once the product of his imagination and a symbol for faceless, obedient masses, form a clear political allegory about dictators and their millions of enablers. But today, when our concerns about how people achieve power have shifted, the piece doesn't pack the same punch.
The Chairs also lacks the humor of related absurdist pieces like Waiting for Godot. Like that Beckett play, The Chairs is about a pair of clowns (in shabby clothes, by Sarah Roland, that echo the attire of the great vaudeville clowns) who wait, here for an orator to deliver the Old Man's message. But the titular gag goes on too long, and Elias finds few clowning opportunities, despite Cohn's considerable talents in that arena. If Monty Python had the Ministry of Silly Walks, Cohn could "chair" the Ministry of Silly Ways to Carry Seats.
Still, while Elias's The Chairs provides valuable insight into a past political mindset and important theatrical style, allowing audiences the too-rare opportunity to conjure images on their own, it fails to answer another important question: Why now?
The Chairs continues through Mar. 31 at the Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St., S.F. Admission is $10-$50.