I told Rox I only wanted to review one play a month. After the usual "But Elle" she agreed. But somehow, somehow, I found myself playing rock-paper-scissor sitting in my chair, in the back row of the Guthrie Lab, watching "The Chairs"--my second play in less than thirty days. It would have been three but I got out of "Lie of the Mind" by being sick. I should have been sick for this one instead.
Rox: Elle. Let me do the intro. The director, Daniel Aukin, came to the playwriting class I'm taking, so I know everything. Oh, Elle, you should have been there. Boy, would we have had fun. He was this young cute thing from New York-the head of some sort of "mainstream fringe of something so very SoHo." He had on this sky blue long sleeve shirt with a cactus over each pocket, like one of those desertscape cowboy shirts that are back in style. It matched that cool vinyl chair we saw at the retro sale! The one with the rodeo scene on it. And an accent-English I think. But the weird thing was, he was so shy. I kept asking all these questions and he kind of hemmed and hawed, but that could be a New York thing; I don't know.
Elle: Jesus Christ, Rox. What does this have to do with the play?
Rox: This ties in; I promise. So there I was, a young starving student, hungry for knowledge, attention, and New York connections. I wonder if he's single --
Elle: -- or gay? Stop this right now. I'm sick unto dying of: Is he single? Is he gay? Are our limbic brains shrinking? Is this about the dumbing down of America?
Rox: Geez, Elle. Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed? So, I listened to him talk about "The Chairs" and the process involved in being a director, about how much he loves what he does and all that. But I really got hooked when mentioned that he likes to take risks on the stage. You know: all the stuff we talk about.
Elle: Where are you going with this, Rox? We only have 400 more words and you haven't even gotten to the part about this being the most miserable hour and a half in entertainment history. You haven't told them that we wished they would have taken our chairs when they went through that dreadful pantomime with all the imaginary "guests" who required all those chairs. I would have been happy to give up mine to make it stop.
Rox: I was saving that part, Elle. I was going to talk about the actual chairs themselves. How they weren't even as cool as the ones we saw at Savers thrift store for two bucks. My flowered 1960s kitchen chairs kick ass over those. I wonder who does Guthrie's set design?
Elle: Kyle Cheulis. Call him up. Invite him on our next thrift store expedition. Educate him in "vintage chairs." Look can get on with this? Being there was torture enough. I don't want to relive the trauma. I'm having "Cats" flashbacks. Anyway, I'd rather talk about the suitcases than chairs. A poor representation of vintage luggage, I thought.
Rox: I know. You've got some really cool old suitcases. I especially like that brown leather one from the '20s. Okay, listen. I was really into the director guy. I was thinking, wow, New York, Soho, and all that. He had that whole archetype going on.
Elle: Stop. Talk about the play.
Rox: I am. God, you're bitchy today. Who brought up the antique suitcases?
Elle: Only after you started talking vintage chairs.
Rox: Fine. Aukin was saying how a good critic of theatre talks about the stuff of substance, that good critics have of a vision of the field, an understanding of what theatre is by following the emotional line and the connection of the characters. The stuff we always talk about! We always do that, right Elle? I was so excited that I interrupted him mid pause (because sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between a pause and a period) and asked him how he felt about doing fringe stuff for a mainstream audience and not reaching the heights that he deserves...something like that. But it came out all wrong. But you know what I meant to say.
Elle: No. But I can only guess that you are now going to launch into the dumbing down of America thing, or the loss of the limbic brain-which actually might apply here. So let me play a dual role-Rox and Elle, rolled into one and get this thing over with. This play (written by Eugene Ionesco and translated by Jim Lewis was first performed in 1952. Here's what Ionesco said about "The Chairs" in The New York Times in 1958: "I have tried to deal...with emptiness, frustration, with this world, at once fleeting and crushing. The characters I have used are not fully conscious of their spiritual rootlessness, but they feel it instinctively and emotionally." He wrote a bunch of other stuff about this play over the years, but bottom line, "The Chairs" is about-
Elle: Hmmm. Maybe you're right. It was just about kitchen chairs, desk chairs, living room chairs... What I was going to say was "The Chairs" is about the inadequacy of words to express emotion and getting sucked into the vacuum of regret for a life unlived. You've got Old Man (Christopher McCann) and Old Woman (Barbara Byrne) who have lived together for years and years. Their lives have become emptied of meaningful communication and they've have fallen into a pattern of stock phrases about the "same 'ol, same 'ol. Old Woman keeps telling her husband he could have been an important person, an artist, biologist, actor, captain, (etc. etc.) but instead he's a janitor. The stage itself reflects this-empty, except for chairs and suitcases that serve as chairs when the imaginary guests come to hear the Orator, (Charles Schuminski) express that which Old Man has no words for. I just knew that damn Orator would turn out to be a mime.
Rox: I hate mimes. Elle, should we talk about how this is "Theater of the Absurd"?
Elle: What? It's not clear that this play was totally absurd?
Rox: I mean how it's an actual genre.
Elle: It won't lessen the misery of those forced to sit in their chairs through this performance. Fine. I'll quote from the Guthrie's handy-dandy "A Brief Primer on the Theater of the Absurd" About the origins: "...rooted in the avant-garde experiments in art of the 1920s and 1930s...strongly influenced by the experience of the horrors of the Second World War which demonstrated the total impermanence of any values...highlighted [life's] meaninglessness...distrust of language as a means of communication...no dramatic conflict...what happens transcends what is being said about it.... Yeah, so those are the highlights. So, the play did its job. It fulfilled all the necessary requirements of Theater of the Absurd. The problem is, it doesn't make it interesting. Or entertaining.
Rox: Elle, what if the Guthrie never gives us another press pass because we're bashing the chairs?
Elle: Yeah, I feel bad too, Rox. I wanted to love the performance but I was bored out of my skull. I wasn't sure how you felt about the play until you poked me in the ribs, and I looked over at you with your stocking cap pulled down over your eyes and your wool scarf wrapped your nose and mouth. I thought, if Rox is mummifying herself while still living, this play must be even worse than I thought. Your "performance" was the highlight of the play. You didn't need to spout nonsensical words to convey that words are sometimes incapable of expressing what we feel. You said what words couldn't-you were a good mime!
Rox: Thanks, Elle. By the way, my playwriting class hated it too.
Elle: No surprise. Anyway, we're doing our jobs, Rox: reviewing. Besides, this is the only clunker I've ever seen at the Guthrie. But maybe I'd better call for the "A Christmas Carol" tickets before this review is posted.
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