Is it an accident that the final theatrical production put on by the folks at the Zeitgeist Theatre is all about endings? Did the thought of staging Eugene Ionesco’s eerie and revelatory drama The Chairs seem a proper epitaph for a stage that has tangled with the experimental and absurdist outer edge of modern theater countless times before? Well, you didn’t expect Damn Yankees, did you? The home of Beckett and Pinter and Mamet was not going out with a whimper, and Ionesco’s The Chairs is not only a clever swan song, it lays down some hard and funny truths about delusion, ego and the indulgent but necessary lies that hold our fragile lives together.
The Chairs has a very simple, very charming premise. An old woman and an old man are spending another cozy evening at home, replaying a predictable and worn ritual, and resurrecting the stories and disappointments of their many years together. The Old Man (played by 50-year veteran of the stage Roy K. Dennison) is bored; his morose fatigue drapes his body like the frumpy grampa clothes he shuffles around in. The Old Woman (Leah Smith) is a screeching, cooing, hunched-over cheerleader to her husband, rousing him from his depressive stupor, encouraging him to lose himself once again to the memories of better days, days filled with promise and hope and romance. She is constantly listing for him what he could have been; he is constantly reminding her what he was.
“You could have been head cabinetmaker … head orchestra leader … head general …” she rattles on and on.
“I was a general factotum,” he says, resigned but still a little proud.
This is their world. She props him up, expressing her undying love and support in ridiculously copious gestures and words. He seems to want to fight it off, but he succumbs, awash in the exaggeration and distortion.
“You could have been anything in life … a general anything!” she reminds him.
“I’m not like other people,” the Old Man says. But as the play unfolds, we realize he’s exactly like other people. Self-important. Blaming everyone but himself for his failings. Thinking that he alone possesses the secret knowledge about life, that his experiences and thoughts make him different — make him better — than the other poor slobs on this planet.
As we visit with Old Man and Old Woman in their living room, a living room framed by two windows and two chairs and a bewildering number of doorways, we recognize that if not for some foggy memories of past grandeur, these two poor souls wouldn’t have much. The Old Man seems to have plenty of reasons to jump out of one of those apartment windows, and the Old Woman’s existence is entirely devoted to keeping him smugly satisfied. There is a point in the play where the Old Woman’s words aren’t cutting it, reducing the Old Man to crying, “I want my Mommy. … I’m an orphan. … I want my Mommy!” The scene characterizes the play’s vacillation between sweetness and bitterness, between clear-headed narrative and a disorienting, surreal, all-out freak-out.
Ionesco turns up the play’s hallucinogenic heat when the Old Man announces that today is the day that he, with the help of a “professional orator,” will deliver his big secret, his system for everything, his answers about life and the universe to the “intellectuals and proprietors” of the village. They stream in, invisible to the audience but addressed directly by the Old Man and the Old Woman. As they enter, the Old Woman is forced to retrieve more chairs through the maze of doorways that surround them. As she does, the Old Man charms and flirts, admonishes and corrects those assembled as the chairs keep piling up. Even the “emperor” drops by. Don’t worry, it makes sense in the twisted, brilliant logic of the play. Tension builds as we await this grand message and the living room fills with invisible people, people you’ll swear you can actually see as the Old Man and the Old Woman carry on with them. Smith and Dennison’s talents are on display with these imaginary conversations. The timing has to be just right to make us believe, and both actors nail it.
Although no longer a venue for theatrical productions, the black box on Michigan will continue to be an art gallery as well as a screening room for owner Troy Richard’s newest venture, independent film production. The bizarre and experimental will still have a home at the Zeitgeist.
The Chairs continues May 7-9, and 14-16. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m., and Sunday shows are at 4 p.m. Zeitgeist is located at 2661 Michigan Ave., between 19th and 20th Streets, in Detroit. Call 313-965-9192 or go to www.zeitgeist.org.Dan Demaggio writes on theater and other topics for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]