February 19, 2003

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Vanishing act
Nothing still adds up to something in The Chairs.

By Robert Avila

IF IT'S IMPOSSIBLE these days to avoid feeling like the French are trying to tell us something, escapists and others will appreciate a look back at 1952, when Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs, an early example of what came to be labeled theater of the absurd, concerned itself with articulating precisely nothing.

In Ionesco's wicked one-act, currently enjoying a spirited revival at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, an old janitor and his wife (Gerald Hiken and Barbara Oliver) inhabit a seaside tower where they've daily recycled the same games and reminiscences through 75 years of marriage. Soon they're welcoming a stream of invisible guests, worthy personages including, at last, the emperor himself, all summoned to hear the old man dispense the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime. "I have a message for all mankind," he says, hoping thereby, with the fawning support of his nagging but otherwise devoted companion, to redeem a misspent life. Unused to public speaking, however, he has engaged an Orator (Trish Mulholland) who will relay this world-historic message on his behalf. Meanwhile, each new guest requires his or her own seat, and the old woman must shuttle out and back, with increasing urgency, until the stage is full of seemingly empty chairs. With the arrival of Mulholland's enchantingly prim and mysterious Orator, the couple leave the stage, literally and figuratively, confident their salvation rests in the hands of a professional. The Orator, however, turns out to be completely incomprehensible. C'est la vie.

Everything in The Chairs adds up to nothing, thematically speaking. What Ionesco called his "tragic farce" proceeds by a clever series of antitheses that cancel one another out: overtly meaningless dialogue, an orator who can't speak, an audience of empty chairs. Even the main characters nullify each other, not only in the contradictory accounts they give (one says it's day, the other night; one says they have a son, the other that they are childless; etc.) but also because their mutual attempt to ensure a lasting reputation directly results in their vanishing forever. Two's company, then a crowd, and finally, a big fat zero. By belying the usual notions of plot, character, and dialogue, there's a sense in which the play even cancels itself, or becomes an "antiplay." In this fashion Ionesco's existential portrait suggests nothing so much as a yawning absence, the unknowable, incommunicable, unreal nature of existence.

The Chairs premiered a year before Waiting for Godot, and the affinities between it and the work of other postwar antirealist playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee are plain. The couple's marooned existence, in a world the play hints is postapocalyptic, brings to mind Beckett's Endgame. Likewise, the couple's contradictory tales, including the old woman's bemoaning a wayward son and the old man's insistence that they never had any children, finds an echo in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as well as his more recent Play about the Baby. Nevertheless, the play's self-conscious avant-gardism feels a bit stuffy 50 years on. Aurora's production benefits considerably from director Cliff Mayotte's emphasis on its zanier elements and Jim Lewis's fresh, contemporary-sounding translation.

And with seasoned actors like Hiken and Aurora artistic director Oliver as the leads, the play's nearly vaudevillian hilarity becomes grounds for virtuoso performances. Hiken and Oliver masterfully manage a hysterical burlesque of social schmoozing and mounting agoraphobia as guests whom we can neither see nor hear swarm around them. Hiken, in a soiled linen jacket and trousers that go up to his chest, is ebullient as the sometimes curmudgeonly, sometimes coy old man. There's a delightful mixture of aggression and regression in this nugatory nonagenarian, of megalomania and impotence, voiced one moment as "I want my Momma" and the next as "I have a message for all mankind." Oliver's frowzy hausfrau matches Hiken's madcap every step of the way, blushing at the social temerity of an invisible guest over here and shamelessly abandoning herself to another over there.

The Chairs strikes an agreeable balance between existential portraiture and old-fashioned comic high jinks. Still, it's a heady sort of comedy, part conceptual art and part slapstick. As the real audience, at one remove as it were, we are liable to gaze out self-consciously at this sculpture of nothingness, embodied in the rows of empty chairs, and find it far from empty.

'The Chairs' runs through March 9. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m., Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison, Berk. $28-$38. (510) 843-4822.