The question of overflow seating becomes the crux of 7 Stages' production of The Chairs, Eugene Ionesco's landmark 1952 work of the Theater of the Absurd. Theatrical troupes can often take absurdism as license to indulge in the most silly, noisy, overwrought behavior they're capable of. 7 Stages' The Chairs hardly qualifies as a restrained production, but Bulgarian director Prodan Dimov puts the play's precarious nonsense on as firm a foundation as you could reasonably expect.
An old man (Michael Anthony Tatmon) and woman (Shontelle Thrash), married for 75 years, occupy a house "on an island in the middle of the void." Based on the echoey sound effects and their description of stagnant waters, we imagine their home on the brink of a vast nothingness. They could be neighbors of Samuel Beckett's post-apocalyptic shut-ins from Endgame.
For the first third or so of the play we watch the couple interact as they hearken back to fond memories and pick at old wounds. Their actions can be entirely bizarre: When the old man recounts a story called "The Two of Us Came," in which Paris appears as a forgotten ruin, he puts on boxing gloves and literally spars with his wife.
But often their behaviors, no matter how weird, feel like heightened examples of the little in-jokes and rituals that develop between any long-married couple. Thrash and Tatmon, doing the best work I've ever seen of either actor, can invest lines of sexual aggression, veiled resentment and loving companionability, making The Chairs unfold as the quirkiest of love stories. Yet their contradictions emerge in their relationship, like the way she calls him "poppet" and seems as much his mother as wife.
The play takes place on no ordinary evening, but the biggest night of their lives. The old man has spent his days composing a message for the world, one that gives meaning to his life and, by implication, to Life itself. He's hired an orator to deliver it and arranged for a multitude to attend. When the guests arrive, they're invisible and inaudible to audience, although some appear as silhouettes in the window (which eliminates the intriguing idea that they're figments of the couple's imaginations).
Tatmon and Thrash engage in one-sided conversations with a field marshal, an old girlfriend and other guests, and illustrate the inane nature of party chit-chat. Thrash lasciviously flirts with one guest, propping her heels on the backs of two chairs and, later, pulling bra after bra out of her blouse, like the old magic trick with the scarves.
For a while, physical comedy drives The Chairs. The doorbell rings non-stop, the crowd noise rises, and the actors mime squeezing through the press of invisible people. As the old couple labor to bring in dozens upon dozens of chairs, the play provides a comic image of desperate futility, like watching Lucy Ricardo trying to keep up with the chocolates on the conveyor belt. It can try the audience's patience to spend a long stretch literally watching nothing but Tatmon and Thrash move furniture.
By choosing two African-American actors, 7 Stages' production opens The Chairs to a whole new level of interpretation -- and not just as a display of non-traditional, "diverse" casting. The old man talks about having intellectual aspirations for his entire life, even though he worked as a janitor. The old woman gently teases him for lacking ambition, but its easy to interpret that he was kept down by a racist system, an idea reinforced when he begins carrying a mop and wearing a bucket on his head.
When "The emperor, king of kings" arrives at their house, the old man experiences both validation and frustration -- he seeks to approach his Majesty, but the crowd keeps him separate. Replace the words "The Emperor" with "The Man" and you'll get a sense of the power dynamics potentially at work. Ionesco himself may not have intended such a reading -- the Romanian-born French playwright opposed politicizing theater -- but this treatment holds up.
Prodan Dimov previously directed a playful version of Diary of a Madman for 7 Stages, and makes The Chairs both inventive and slow-paced. The Chairs' last moments -- which seem to take forever to arrive -- incorporate Christian pageantry, shadow play and karate kicks. Ming Chen's set proves as spacious and functional as it needs to be, but the sky-blue paint makes it look more like a day spa's lobby than the old couple's environment.
The Chairs will tour China as part of the China Shanghai International Arts Festival, and audiences who don't know English may not be at a disad- vantage. 7 Stages' treatment of Ionesco gives little credence to the idea of "meaning," and instead emphasizes strange images. Still, a little absurdism goes a long way, and The Chairs draws out enough to leave you shifting in your seat before curtain.
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