By Patsy Isenberg
“The Chairs” opened at Flint Repertory Theatre’s Bower Black Box Friday Nov. 1 to a sold-out house. Artistic Director Michael Lluberes could be seen helping late arrivals search for seats. [The production continues next weekend through Sunday, Nov. 10–details below.]
It’s a good bet that most of the audience expected a simple comedy about an elderly couple’s conversation. It turns out there was much more to this play than that.
Plays at The Rep usually do sell a lot of tickets, but this time the popularity of “The Chairs” might have something to do with the fact that longtime Flint thespians, Michael and Kay Kelly, portrayed the only two people in it with lines.
There was one other small but important role also played by a well-known Flint actor mysterious named only “Harvey” who, according to the show program, is passionate about bringing “awareness to the Water Crisis everywhere she goes.” All three have performed in plays, movies, TV and on stages in Flint as well as other productions around the country.
Lluberes keeps picking such interesting shows to put on at The Rep. The directors and actors often come from elsewhere to direct and act in them, too. “The Chairs” is directed by 26-year old Alex Bodine of New York, who also directed last season’s “The Little Prince” here.
Bodine studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, received a Kenan Fellowship in Directing at ACT, Seattle, and is also a choreographer with the Society of American Fight Directors. His skill at choreography was seen in “The Little Prince” last season, and was apparent in “The Chairs,” but not how one would think.
“The Chairs” was written in French by Eugène Ionesco in 1952 and translated by Donald M. Allen. The play was one of several written by playwrights in Europe who came out of a post-WWII mindset and whose work came to be known as the Theatre of the Absurd.
Absurdist drama is defined in britannica.com as “dramatic works of certain European and American dramatists of the 1950s and early ’60s who agreed with the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus’s assessment…that the human situation is essentially absurd, devoid of purpose.” In other words, the nothingness of life.
Michael Kelly commented about the rapid succession of plays written in the first seven years after the war, noting that 40 percent of the men in Europe had died. Kelly speculated Theatre of the Absurd came from the devastation left behind by the war and how it caused artists to question life’s meaning.
Bodine writes in his director’s notes in the program that “being about nothing, this play has a funny way of being about an endless number of things.”
So, that’s why the play was so surprising. It would be a shame to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, so not too much of the plot will be revealed here. That was such an enjoyable part of seeing it.
There was a lot of laughter during the performance despite the seriousness of the term just described, mostly due to the “absurdity” of the situation the old couple are in and their quick back and forth, snappy, often senseless dialogue.
Many audience members had puzzled looks as they left the theatre. One audience member, Camille Bryan from Lapeer, said, “They give you all these puzzle pieces you have to put together to make sense out of it.” Director Bodine said, “This play demands for us to participate.”
It’s the kind of play that can be thought about and talked about for quite a while after seeing it. But it’s enjoyable even without the analysis and deep meaning. Watching and listening to the Kellys late in the show during a long and frenetic action scene in particular was really fun.
Bodine writes in his notes about the old man, that he put off “gratitude, self-care, and taking enjoyment in what he has …” until reaching “that mythical place of ‘making it.” Bodine added, “It’s no coincidence that the general factotum [old man/custodian] in the play lives in utter squalor, a consuming trash heap of unaddressed life piling up around him while he strives ceaselessly for some unreachable message.” Throughout the play the couple talks about his important message The Orator will deliver.
The Kellys rose to the challenge of delivering 90 minutes of difficult dialogue with tricky timing against each other and energetic “choreography.” They were amazing.
And “Harvey” had no lines at all but totally captivated the audience with her strange “muteness” near the end of the play as The Orator.
In addition to Bodine’s directing, credit needs to go the rest of the creative team for bringing the play to the stage so successfully. UM-Flint graduate Kendra Babcock did a great job with the old man and old woman’s costumes and, especially, the Orator’s bizarre appearance. Sara Briggs, the props designer, fulfilled quite a task acquiring all those chairs and other “junk” for the set.
New York City-based Jennifer Fok supplied creative lighting; Andrew Licout, also from New York City, created the amazing, but curious, set design. The sound design was done by UM-Flint technical theatre student and musician Aaron Weeks.
“The Chairs” will continue through this coming weekend with performances on Fri., Nov. 8 at 8 p.m., Nov. 9 at 2 p.m and 8 p.m., and Sun., Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for teens and seniors, and $8 for college students (College Student Rush Rate with valid I.D., one hour prior to a performance). Genesee County residents receive a 30 percent discount on public performances and subscriptions.
Tickets can be purchased at The Ticket Center, 1241 E. Kearsley St., Flint, or by calling 810-237-7333, or visiting www.flintrep.org. Flint Repertory Theatre is at 1220 E. Kearsley St., Flint, 48503.
“The Chairs” production is sponsored by Nartel Family Foundation. The Rep’s Signature Series this season is sponsored by the Whiting Foundation. Café Rhema sponsored the opening reception.
Banner photo by Mike Naddeo provided by the Flint Repertory Theatre.
EVM staff writer and reviewer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.