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'Chairs' may make you wobbly

Dec 19 2008
Kevin D. Thompson | Palm Beach Post

Ask 50 people the meaning of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs and odds are you'll get 50 different responses. But that's to be expected for a Theatre of the Absurd production. Those plays, after all, are known for their heightened reality, over-the-top comedy and, well, nonsensical dialogue that often leaves theatergoers - and actors - scratching their heads in confusion. J. Barry Lewis is directing Palm Beach Dramaworks' production of The Chairs, opening tonight. Even Lewis, who is very familiar with the story and who has seen the play in New York and Washington, isn't always sure what to make of what is widely considered Ionesco's masterpiece. "The meaning of the play changes on a daily basis," Lewis says, chuckling slightly. "What you see today, what you hear today is different from yesterday." The tragic farce, written in 1952, goes something like this: Two characters known only as "Old Man" and "Old Woman" reminisce about their lives and set up chairs as they patiently await the arrival of guests only they can see. The guests come to hear the Old Man's (Dan Leonard) wisdom as he delivers a revelatory message. There's a twist at the end that will likely lead to a spirited debate on the drive home about the meaning of life. The play obviously was Ionesco's attempt to make some sense of what he saw as an insane world and man's existence within it. "As the world is incomprehensible to me," the famed playwright once wrote, "I am waiting for someone to explain it." Some might say the same thing about The Chairs, Dramaworks' second production of its ninth season. When the comic-absurdist play was first performed in Paris in 1952, both critics and audiences alike were baffled by it. But Bill Hayes, Dramaworks' producing artistic director, says he selected the play because of its powerful message. "It makes a strong statement about man's struggle to find meaning and purpose while trying to define our existence on the planet," he says. "This new translation is much richer and has more humor." Barbara Bradshaw, last seen in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre production of Deathtrap, plays the Old Woman in The Chairs. She calls the role the most difficult of her career. "Everything in this show is outside the box, a little odd and exaggerated," Bradshaw says. "Nothing falls within the realm of conventional description which makes it extremely challenging as an actress. My character isn't the kind of old woman you'd find in a Tennessee Williams play." For example, as Bradshaw explains, most stage productions are about listening and responding. While there are only two actors on stage in The Chairs, there are supposed to be about 50 other characters the Old Man and Old Women are talking to, so the art of listening and responding becomes that much more difficult. Bradshaw says she did a lot of research before rehearsal to get a better understanding of the material and what Ionesco, who died in 1994, was trying to say with it. The result? "I came away with ten different interpretations," she says. "The existentialism of Ionesco's work (says that) man's very existence in the universe is absurd and that the only way for a life to have meaning is to commit to something beyond the self. One of the pitfalls he sees is the inability to communicate." Meanwhile, Leonard (who recently played Joe Kennedy in Florida Stage's Dirty Business) says he's had his own difficulties wrapping his arms around the role of Old Man. "A lot of the lines are non-sequiturs," he says, "so I had to try a new method of memorization. I started rehearsing the material a couple of weeks earlier than I usually do, but now I'm largely going with the moment and being willing to accept a different reality." Lewis says one of the biggest hurdles in directing the show was making sure audiences found the humor in the play. "The real challenge was to look at Ionesco's language and to try to find the comedy," he says. "When that's done, the audience watching the piece then becomes not so concerned with what the play is about. They're just responding to the situations as they unfold." One thing Lewis didn't want his cast to do was to apply logic to the show - even when the material was begging for it. He points out that one line would read, "Yes, in a paper bag." And the following line was "The weather is beautiful." "You hear these phrases and you can't make logic out of it," Lewis explains. "Ionesco was looking at how language had deteriorated to meaningless clichés. And how often do we do that in our lives? The play underscores the emptiness of today's conversations and our inability to really connect or talk to each other." Although the show was written in the 1950s, Lewis says the story still resonates. "The struggle of man continues to be the same," he says. "What impacts that struggle may change, but we are still struggling with the survival of the spirit." The audience, however, may have to work just a little harder if it's going to fully appreciate Ionesco's landmark play. "If you come to this show for the experience and if you leave all conventional expectations aside," Bradshaw says, "You will go on a wonderful journey."