Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Theater review: Kitchen Dog Theater proves absurdist style lives in The Chairs
Absurdism may not be dead, but we all will be soon.
DALLAS We’re all familiar with The Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Someone who is The Authority says something is wonderful and we all sort of go, “Well, if so-and-so says such-and-such is wonderful, it must be wonderful.” This can be applied to almost anything, but seems to be particularly true in the arts. People who say, “I may not know art, but I know what I like,” are often looked at askance by those who want to be taken as sophisticated and “in the know.”
Theater of the Absurd can be that sort of experience —- you know that you should appreciate it to be considered knowledgeable, but sometimes you sit there going, “Huh?” Perhaps that’s why a production of The Chairs hasn’t been seen here since the 1960s.
Whether you truly understand what is happening on stage or not, and whether it makes sense or not, you will be caught up in the sheer theatrical magic of the evening. The message or the point of the event portrayed may elude you and you may think, “I need to remember that statement or action and think about it some more later”, but you will still be moved and mesmerized by the performances of these two amazing actors.
The set, lighting, costumes, sound and music choices and execution are all integral to the success of this outstanding production. Oh, and did I mention it’s also whoop and holler-out-loud funny?
Martin Esslin wrote a book called The Theater of the Absurd in 1962 and gave definition to a genre of theater. He included Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and added Harold Pinter later. Apparently, this form is based on the Existentialist idea that human lives have no meaning. We are born, we live our pointless lives and we die. Therefore, since there is no meaning to life, everything we do is absurd. Cheery, right?
Esslin goes on to say, in discussing The Chairs, that the image of the empty chair shows Ionesco’s frustrations in trying to convey life experiences to an imaginary crowd by actors who don’t understand the message either. In Deborah B. Gaensbauer’s book, Eugene Ionesco Revisited, she says that in his plays the world is full of decay, corruption and meaningless repetitive action, filled with images of despair, the isolation of the individual and the inevitability of death. Gloom and doom. Not the kind of play you share with a theater virgin. Isn’t Anything Goes playing down the street?
All of these absurdist elements are certainly present in Kitchen Dog’s production, and there to be seen and pondered. And yet, the skill with which Director Tim Johnson approaches this production and the level of his creativity takes what could be something completely indecipherable and depressing (and ultimately uninteresting) and makes it into an absolutely riveting evening, regardless of your knowledge of or experience with the genre.
It takes a really good director to look at a script and “fill in the blanks,” to make the words and actions bloom into something besides a recitation of the printed page, to find the correct pace and rhythm and visualize a production not only wildly entertaining, but true to the themes and purpose of the playwright. Fortunately for this production, Mr. Johnson has that ability and combines it with the talent for improvisation and clown-like action, years of experience of his stellar cast, and the work of his top-notch design team. The play is called a tragi-comedy or tragic farce, and over and over again in this performance you find yourself laughing and being deeply moved at the same time. Mr. Johnson’s very clear vision of what the production should be is evident in every aspect of the performances and in each element of the show. The physical actions that fall between or under the dialogue only enhance our experience. He manages to find meaning in all the meaningless questions without simplifying or pandering, and always seems to illuminate the author’s true purpose while entertaining the audience at the same time.
Raphael Parry is the Old Man, and his years of theatrical experience are evident in every action. He’s Stan Laurel by way of Albert Einstein with a little bit of Bozo the Clown thrown in. It is such a pleasure to watch his skill at physical comedy and listen to his masterful handling of the text. Tragic and comic all at once, he paints a portrait not to be forgotten. The scene where he calls for his mother while curled on the Old Woman’s lap is a perfect example.
The Old Woman is Rhonda Boutté and she is no less skilled or experienced than Mr. Parry. “Three is funny” is a comedy maxim, and she illustrates this right at the top of the show as she navigates the three steps farthest upstage. She has the wonderful innate sense of what makes an action or a line reading work and has honed that skill to a formidable power. Every expression and movement creates a part of her well-crafted characterization.
Absurdist plays often use clowning techniques that come from vaudeville, and the classic films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to drive home their point. All of those elements are here and together these two thespians illustrate everything that acting teachers strive to explain to their students: subtle, masterful technique that is wonderfully invisible and appears effortless and spontaneous. The illusion of “the first time” has to be duplicated over and over again, and is probably one of the most difficult and under-appreciated arts of acting. These guys know how to do it, and do it well.
The text of an absurdist play is notoriously difficult to memorize because, by its very nature, it isn’t linear and is often repetitive or repetitious with similar, but slightly different wording, and can even be nonsensical. I am in awe of how these actors manage to do it, and indeed, in speaking with them after the performance, they admitted that it was very difficult and that they continue to struggle and rehearse nightly. Another difficulty is the sheer physical toll that a two character play, which slowly builds in intensity of emotion and action, requires. Again, the effortless way in which these actors accomplish this is inspiring to behold.
In a brief, but memorable appearance at the end of the evening, Brian Witkowicz, as The Orator, brings his natural talent and stage presence to round out the ensemble. Looking somewhat like a stage magician – not a bad thing in this case – he blithely poses and gestures as absurdly, amusingly and sadly as the rest of the script. It takes someone with confidence and ability to appear in the final moment and take control of the action. He does it!
I really love and admire the set by Scott Osborne. It manages to create a sense of place and time without being specific, while being the perfect atmosphere for the text and the vision of the production and an illumination of the playwright’s intent. It’s just the right combination of real and not-real this play needs. You’ve never seen so many doors in one set and they all do things you never expect. Color, texture, scale, attention to detail, and execution all work together to create the best possible environment.
The lighting by Suzanne Lavender is almost a character in itself. From the footlights that support the music hall and vaudeville feeling during certain moments, to the reinforcement of every new beat of the action, the intensity, color and angles of the light make theater magic happen. I particularly like the water reflection effects throughout that helped solidify the location and isolation, and amplified the themes of the play.
No less integral and supportive is the uncanny rightness of the sound, moment by moment, created by John M. Flores. Sometimes so subtle that you barely notice, it subconsciously becomes the underlying current of the movement of the action and guides our emotions down this twisted and strange path. I can’t imagine any other sound design working as well.
Costumes by Giva Taylor do what all good costumes should do: illustrate, amplify and support the characterization and the director’s vision. From the Old Woman’s hair net to the choice of stockings, from the Old Man’s boots and sweater, worn at the elbows, it all comes together, with the WWI helmet and various hats to amuse, and yet seem just right. Just the correct amount of tatter and wear make these appear to be actual clothing instead of costumes, yet also manages to push the imagination to encompass lots of new possibilities.
And the chairs -- dozens of them in every conceivable shape, form and size, piled up impossibly high, hung, rolled, carried and dragged in. They become a character in themselves. I’m not sure if that’s the work of Jen Gilson-Gilliam, Props Designer, but whoever is responsible deserves a bow.
The play, by its very nature, leaves us with intriguing questions about what is real and what is not, and the nature of our own isolation, especially in today’s world of egocentric, electronic isolation. Does The Orator’s inability to communicate what the Old Man had to say simply reinforce the inability of any of us to do so? Is he the symbol of the absolute unknowability of what comes after death? Is he real or as imaginary as the guests? Do all the empty chairs on stage stand in for us and our empty lives? Giving us intriguing things to think about and discuss after we exit is exactly what good theater does, in addition to being entertaining.
Despite the fact that the performance gets a little long after the Emperor’s entrance, and proves the only time when the audience is not absolutely riveted, this is, as other critics have noted, a production to take its place as one of the best Dallas has seen in several seasons. Make your way to Kitchen Dog Theater at The Mac and prepare to be amazed, intrigued, baffled, enlightened, moved and exhilarated by this extraordinary production.
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