What a treat it is to see one of our professional theater companies take on an old-fashioned 1950s mindfuck like The Chairs. Eugene Ionesco is the kind of discomfiting relic that nobody wants to touch, and other than a local college's very fine 2007 production of The Balcony by fellow discomfiting relic Jean Genet, no one in recent memory has even tried. But we need plays like these.
Who writes like Genet or Ionesco nowadays? The absence of experimentation in modern popular theater could make you think that all the questions posed by the clowns and monsters of the Theater of the Absurd have been answered; the contradictions they unearthed, resolved. If that were the case, I do not believe The Chairs would be so funny or so frightening. It would scan like one of those 19th-century futurist manifestoes that imagined the year 2000 would find us all flying to the opera in our very own aerostats and receiving sustenance from pills instead of meals. Quaint, in a word. The Chairs is not quaint. It is alive, mesmerizing, creepily intense, and deeply moving.
The Chairs doesn't offer much of a story. An old janitor and his wife, Semiramis (named after the Assyrian queen, Semirande) invite a bunch of invisible — or maybe nonexistent — people to their home to hear about the old man's discovery of the meaning of life, which is about to be revealed by a hired orator. When the man and woman joyously if not entirely sensibly kill themselves, they incur the Apocalypse as well as a brief theatrical coda that probably inspired the "fetus" scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (I trust I'm not giving away anything too important; the story really is beside the point).
But The Chairs' huge emotional and intellectual wallop comes via a more direct, tactile route. You might call it "poetry." Ionesco began writing drama because language itself intrigued him; the way sentences could simultaneously contain meaning (something factual, say, like "The spatula goes in the right-hand drawer") and also suck the meaning right out of a room (How likely are you to say something important if you're worrying about the placement of spatulas?). A lot of the banter in The Chairs is circuitous and nonsensical. Words wiggle free of their meanings, and an ordinary, banal conversation is suddenly turned into a sort of abstract aural sculpture, ambiguous but full of feeling, hanging in the air.
Take the moment early in the play, when Semiramis, played by Barbara Bradshaw, demands that the Old Man, played by Dan Leonard, tell her the same story he tells every night. It is about something that happened when the man was 15, when he came to a fence, went through some wet grass, and saw a place called "Paris," which either was or was not really there, and then spilled some rice. There is no arc to the story, no point. But the Old Woman is rapt. Soon, the pair begin laughing, explosively, a real toss-your-cookies kind of laugh, repeating words from the story and slapping their knees. "Rice!" the woman cries, cackling. "Farther! And then we came! You came! Came! Came." What they are laughing at, you cannot imagine.
Semiramis thinks her husband lacks ambition, a failing that, she says, prevented him from becoming a school master or a postmaster or a master whatever. The Old Man screws his face up into a mighty pucker. He wails: "And ruined my life?" He begins crying for his mommy, and suddenly Semiramis is his mommy. The exact nature of their relationship remains occluded for the rest of the play.
How does one act out a scene, much less a play, so willfully divorced from the rhythms of ordinary life? In this case, brilliantly: through pure, face-twisting craft. The couple's excitement builds as they realize that, yes, they will be receiving guests and that the Old Man will finally have a chance to speak his piece — to show the world that he wasn't merely a janitor but that he was... special! Subtly, Bradshaw and Leonard turn up the volume, raising the temperature until the whole theater boils. There is pandemonium as Semiramis and the Old Man escort one, then two, then four, and then an unaccountable gaggle of invisible guests into their ugly little living room. Somehow, through some special dramatic alchemy, the two actors seem to create the cacophony of a crowd. It is a busy, chaotic scene and one hell of a trick for the actors to pull off. Yet through the whole elaborate pantomime, Leonard and Bradshaw never cease juggling that other, more elusive emotion: the anticipation of the Old Man's imminent unveiling. This, after all, is the most important night of his life.
But it hasn't been easy, the Old Man says near the end of the play. "They" pulled his ankles when he was rock-climbing. Stairs collapsed "into a heap of rubble" when he climbed them. He tried to cross the river, but "they" burned his bridges. He tried to cross the pyramids, "but the pyramids are no more." ("Pyrenees!" adds the Old Woman, supplying the last tasty crouton to Ionesco's word salad.) These events, we understand, didn't exactly have to happen — this could be a metaphor, or the Old Man could be senile. Words aren't the only things that float free of their definitions in The Chairs — whole sentences do likewise, gradually stripping context and specificity from everything the characters do. Maybe this is Ionesco's attempt to diagram the banality of suffering, but Palm Beach Dramaworks' intimate production reinjects specificity into the words, suggesting that this litany of torment is about the interchangeability of all suffering. The Old Man and Semiramis are just a janitor and housewife, or just a son and mother, and by interpreting their formless lines with simple, unpretentious empathy — by taking them at their word, and damn the experimentation — Leonard and Bradshaw make them believable stand-ins for everyone.
Swept up with feeling for these strange, sad beings, you may realize that they find nothing odd in a host of invisible guests because they themselves have been invisible for so long. You may find something touching and decent in the way Semiramis scrambles to find enough chairs to accommodate the guests, never doubting for a moment that even the invisible deserve a seat at her table. And you may note with growing excitement that, for all the chairs cluttering the stage, the Old Man and Semiramis eventually neglect to sit down at all. The stage is theirs, they are visible and corporeal, and despite a life of quiet ignominy, they have elected to, at long last, stand up. You can't wait to see what they'll do.