Flint Rep fills imagination with empty ‘Chairs’
FLINT, Mich.–Humans get nervous around nothingness. We have a tendency to want to fill it up, to insert things into the blanks even to the point of trying to turn our imagination into reality.
Ionesco’s The Chairs tackles this tendency by presenting us with an old couple who may or may not be the last two people on earth. Certainly, Paris is gone and they live in an attic where the ocean laps at their doorsteps.
The classic absurdist play is being produced by Flint Repertory Theater, which once again transforms its performance space to create a new stage. The audience is lined up against the back of the Bower stage looking out on a backdrop that hides the theater’s usual seats for most of the show. This allows for the technical crew, under the leadership of Director Alex Bodine to get very creative with lighting and the set.
Indeed, all the technical staff deserves high praise for their accomplishments, providing a complex backdrop for a challenging show that is beautifully performed by husband and wife team Kay and Michael Kelly with a late appearance by Harvey.
Scenic Designer Andrew Licout’s work immediately catches the eye upon entering. In a city made famous for its water crisis, Licout makes use of polluted and trash-filled water as a major motif of the set. It separates the audience from the stage in a moat filled not with alligators or sharks but discarded cans, broken furniture and pieces of bicycles. The backdrop is a worn frame of wooden beams, haphazardly covered with plastic sheets.
The play was written in 1952 and Sarah Briggs, who is in charge of props design, evokes that period with an old-fashioned television showing only static, a phonograph, and an old-style film projector among other things.
And then there are the chairs—lots and lots of chairs that get brought on throughout the show until the once nearly empty stage runs over with them.
The play begins with just the Old Man and Old Woman going through routines they claim to have done for every day of their 75-year marriage. They address each other with great affection, but each have their own bits of quirkiness. Today is to be a momentous day for them. The Old Man is finally going to reveal his Message to the world. He’s hired The Orator because he does not think he can do it himself.
Soon, guests arrive, except the guests are invisible. Their arrival is hailed with great lighting effects by Jennifer Fok and various appropriate sound effects by Aaron Weeks that herald who they are.
But what truly makes this play a fascinating evening of theater are the performances by the Kellys. They fully commit to the absurdities of their roles, whether it is Michael Kelly weeping because his 90-some year old character is an orphan or Kay Kelly flirting with and making audacious sexual moves with an invisible photo-engraver.
Their timing is incredible, especially in scenes where they are both speaking with invisible guests across the stage from each other and they engage in quick-fire patter with appropriate dead space allowed for the invisible person they are speaking with to respond. It’s done so convincingly that you can almost imagine what the invisible person is saying. And even when you can’t as an audience member, you are still fully convinced that the Old Man and Old Woman do.
When the actress “Harvey” (only one name given) arrives late in the show, she raises both the stakes and the level of absurdity, doing so with beautiful control and stage presence aided by Kendra Babcock’s creative costuming. Harvey contributes to the final ending with poise and irony.
In a show that could be depressing because of its themes of loneliness and our inability to communicate, the liveliness of the Kellys and the intelligent directing of Bodine make this 90-minute show amusing and deceptively light-hearted. They inject the show with charm, even in the absence of hope. And they keep the energy high so that there is always something to engage with.
The Chairs forces us to recognize our inability to fathom nothingness, our need to find meaning and impose it where it may or may not exist. It illustrates the power of imagination and that while it can create, it can also keep us from doing what we want to do and compel us to actions that may be ultimately destructive.
It is also a show that belongs to a genre rarely performed today as so much of it is in response to the post-World War II world where people were grappling with changes that they feared were apocalyptic in scale. Yet, what Flint Rep bravely offers up with The Chairs feels contemporary and compelling.