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Ionesco: The Chairs

(Click here for more pictures)
July 24—September 20, 2009

Directed by Frédérique Michel
Production Design by Charles A. Duncombe
Cast: Cynthia Mance, Bo Roberts, Garth Whitten

August 5, 2009
Reviewed by Danny Margolies

An old couple sleeps, snoring loudly. The husband awakens first and looks at his wife. He gazes at her with love, tenderness, fear, a lifetime of memories—and the audience is quickly engaged. In whatever way one interprets the enigmas of the script—and many scholars have tried—the couple in this production seems as real as any. Each adores the other, each is happily familiar with the other's faults, and in the hands of actors Cynthia Mance and Bo Roberts they are an odd delight.

Eugène Ionesco's script, translated by Donald Allen—did we catch a fleeting reference to the Internet?—is a magnificent gift to actors and to the audience. As with the best of couples, Mance is the physical comedian—turning the wife into a lively, clowning companion—while Roberts makes the husband the true romantic, fully real in his quiet adoration of his wife and a former flame. Portraying the Orator, Garth Whitten silently greets the "guests," bemusedly eyeing the extremely tall couple, then delivers Ionesco's intentionally unintelligible oration. The set, designed by Charles Duncombe, has the melancholic feel of a Van Gogh room.

At first one wonders why Frederíque Michel put her couple in gray hair, when this play is so abstract that nothing else is spelled out. But by the play's end, when the husband and wife are bounding across the stage in the great ballet of the chairs, the hair serves as a reminder to us that the characters are indeed old—and yet eternal.

The audience will work hard to stay with this piece. It's only fair; the actors and director did so for weeks before putting Ionesco's words into action. But we are also graced with the production's surprising emotional impact—a rare treat in an increasingly absurd world.


KCRW-Theatre Talk
September 17, 2009
Reviewed by James Taylor

Lost Allusions

In years past, when dramatists wanted to make an allusion or use history to suggest a metaphor, chances are they would look to the bible — or some ancient Greek, Roman or even Norse mythology.


Across town in Santa Monica, another production makes reference to Tristan and Isolde: The City Garage’s revival of The Chairs the 1952 “Tragic Farce” by Eugene Ionesco. Here, allusion seems like a throwaway Ionesco’s Old Man says to one of his guests, “Will you be my Isolde and let me be your Tristan.” Like in LaBute’s play, this shout-out foreshadows the climax of the drama, but in Ionesco’s text, and in Frederique Michel’s staging, the allusion is subtle and folds in into the movement of the play. In Helter Skelter, the allusion rings out like a siren and instantly you know how the play is going to end.

Unlike many past City Garage stagings, this revival of The Chairs stays pretty close to the text. Besides doing away with a blackboard and updating a line about the radio (it’s changed now to say “the internet”) Michel delivers a vision of The Chairs that is clear and accessible. The director needs no gimmicks since the two lead actors, Cynthia Mance and Bo Roberts, play Ionesco’s Husband and Wife (and their many guests, ranging five decades in age) with both focus and dedication. It’s not a revelatory production, but a sober presentation of an absurdist play that remains both daring and timeless.

Ionesco’s The Chairs runs through Sunday at the City Garage; The Elixir of Love continues at LA Opera through September 30.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.