Dramaworks tries to connect in 'Chairs,' a Theater of the Absurd
One word has been banned from the set of Palm Beach Dramaworks' production of The Chairs. That word is logic. Don't look for it in this landmark work by Eugene Ionesco, which opens Friday in West Palm Beach. Many aspects of the play are peculiar. It has a cast of more than 50 -- but only three are visible. It's not certain when or where it takes place, although it's apparently set on an island. The main characters are a 95-year-old man and his 94-year-old wife, but you don't find out much about them, and what you do learn is suspect. Welcome to the Theatre of the Absurd. "Ionesco dealt with isolation and our inability to connect," resident director J. Barry Lewis said during a break from rehearsal Friday. "That's the key to The Chairs -- our failure to communicate, although we so desire to." Theatre of the Absurd emerged in France after World War II. Closely tied to the existential movement, it posited that the meaning of existence is incomprehensible and that language is incapable of communicating human experience. Life's only meaning is what we ascribe to it, existentialist thinkers said. Playwrights such as Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet sought to shake society out of its complacency with mordantly witty works that defied traditional narrative structures. The Chairs premiered in 1952. It's been produced on Broadway once, in 1998. According to Dramaworks' leaders, the play never has been produced professionally in Southeast Florida. Dramaworks has a track record of successful productions of difficult works that are rarely mounted in this area. Examples include Edward Albee's Zoo Story, Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit and the play that kicked off this season, Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten. "We have slowly and steadily built an audience of intellectual theater goers, and I have learned repeatedly never to underestimate them," said William Hayes, producing artistic director. In The Chairs, the old man and his wife are hosting an event to impart the old man's momentous message to humanity. A simple janitor, the old man has delegated the task of divulging this message to an orator. As guest after invisible guest arrives, the stage fills up with empty chairs. While waiting for the orator, the couple conduct one-sided conversations with their guests, whose responses the audience cannot hear. The story doesn't unfold, well, logically. "The play is about their experience, rather than their understanding of it," Lewis said. The characters' situation is one that we all find ourselves in, he said. "We can't play the future," he said. "We deal with the immediate present, and we move through it with honor." Dan Leonard and Barbara Bradshaw play the old man and the old woman. A third character, the orator, appears briefly at the end of the play. For Bradshaw, one of the most difficult aspects of the show is nailing the timing of the dialogue. "As performers, we're trained to listen and respond," she said. "In this case I'm listening to what this imaginary person is saying internally and waiting for Dan to respond to the imaginary person he's talking to." To perform effectively, the players must have a clear picture of the invisible characters. "I have to see them as if they're there and hear their lines," Leonard said. "They have to be real to me." Eventually, so many guests jam the room that it becomes difficult to move. "It's the largest cast we've ever had at Dramaworks," Lewis quipped. "Most of them have learned their blocking by now," Leonard added, referring to the stage movements that go with spoken lines. The performers also are grappling with the dialogue, which at times disintegrates into nonsense. That's when you're likely to hear someone say, "This isn't logical." But there's one consolation when the going gets tough. "This is theater of the absurd," Bradshaw said. "There are no wrong choices."