Sit a Strange Spell: Kitchen Dog Theater’s “The Chairs”

When Clint Eastwood appeared at the Republican National Convention in 2012, he baffled everyone watching its broadcast with his rambling, absurd, somewhat crude conversation with an empty chair next to the podium. 185Having now seen Eugene Ionesco’s “The Chairs” (“Les Chaises”), as staged by Kitchen Dog Theater in the MAC’s black box space, I may have a clue about Eastwood’s actions.  Had he been reading Ionesco prior to arriving at the convention? He, like the audience and the two characters in Ionesco’s play, was waiting for the arrival of the Emperor and an Orator to explain the meaning of life. When the Emperor arrives on stage, the audience learns he is invisible; and the Orator proves to be a deaf-mute. Potential for commentary on the Republican Convention and its key players emerges, perhaps fit subject matter for discourse outside theatre criticism. Still, food for ironic thought and worth a chuckle.

I applaud Kitchen Dog Theater for daring to mount this weird 1952 “tragic farce”. Many Dallas companies stay within traditional confines of linear, relatively realistic plays (in production style, if not content). Most seem to feel their audiences aren’t bright or sophisticated enough to sit through something that tosses safe convention over a cliff and asks them to consider alternative expression without an ending tied up in a neat bow. Not Kitchen Dog. Steamin’ full throttle ahead.

Senior KDT company member Tim Johnson cast two of the region’s most versatile regional actors to play the main roles of Old Woman and Old Man, Rhonda Boutte and Raphael Parry, and capitalized well on their skills and talents. With less focused actors, not so as at ease playing absurd, yet fully developed, character intention or in creating palpable symbiosis, this play could become hard to sit through. From the moment lights come up, Boutte and Parry’s physicality and expressive relationship weave a clearly-defined tapestry of intrigue, expectation, joy and sorrow. Sometimes they seem like characters out of a 19th century romance novel — other times like cult followers a la Jonestown, and again like bizarre clowns, circus performers. Their energy never flags; the play’s sweeping esoterica never leaves them, or the audience, behind. A brief hint of danced conga even suggests that the whole play might essentially be a waltz of delusional human expectation, form and substance toying with audience perception like the Northern Lights. No neutral tones get pitched in the script, even though the setting is grim, grimy and neutral grey. The contrast between light and dark, expectation and reality, assaults the audience with a somber thud when the Orator finally appears (Brian Witcowicz), magician-like and full of portent in demeanor but ineffectual, inconclusive…and deaf-mute. Ionesco communicated to the play’s first director that “the last decisive moment of the play should be the expression of … absence.” The soft anti-climax ending leaves the audience with suspended breath; mind afloat, deep portals of introspection gape wide.

Scott Osborne’s set design, well supported by Jen Gilson-Gilliam’s detailed props design and costumes by Giva Taylor, manifests as one of the most memorable and imaginative to grace regional stages in some time. At one point over twenty chairs crowd the playing space. I won’t spoil the visual delight and ingenuity they represent by telling how they arrive, or why, or what they do. Go out on a limb. Support live theatre that embodies imagination way, way, way beyond any box confines. Chuckle if you recall Eastwood’s strange conversation with an empty chair. Art and life: not so very far apart.

Ionesco’s “The Chairs” runs through March 9, 2013 at Kitchen Dog Theater’s home at the MAC, 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas TX.

Tickets: 214.953.1055

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