It’s not just the scores of black metal folding chairs that fill the stage at BAM that mark this limited run of Ionesco’s drastically reimagined 1952 “tragic farce.” It’s the words: words falling from a flurry of pages, from stenciled placards and flashcards and from the ever-chattering mouths of the play’s two protagonists, playfully played by husband and wife David Gordon and Valda Setterfield.
As a nonagenarian couple they speak in nonsense and in code ad infinitum by way of puns, pet names, slogans, jokes and pop tunes. In their own personal vaudeville, they dust off their decades-old routines, telling the same stories, singing the same songs, doing their familiar bits of clowning, cavorting, cooing and continuing their dervish of a dance until they finally walk up the aisle to that great exit in the sky.
The production takes more than a few liberties in staging and text, translated by Michael Feingold, and most honor the spirit of the word, though they may not connect for some absurd purists.
Instead of setting the piece in a detailed specificity of a room on top of a tower, surrounded by water as outlined by the playwright, Gordon’s “Chairs” takes place on an abstract gray square on a naked stage in the very raw setting of the crumbling elegance of the Harvey Theater.
This modest square on a vast stage makes the play’s goings-on confining, expansionary and ever-changing while remaining the same, capturing an endless loop of time floating in the nothingness of space. Wendy Sutter’s cello playing off to the side and Michael Gordon’s music also give the piece a forlorn yet anxious, existential air.
To those familiar with the perf duo and their theater-dance company, taking an extreme and comic look at source material isn’t anything new as they interpret these pieces through the filter of movement, music and comic madness.
But there are personal touches going on in this production as well. In “The Chairs,” both iconography and sentiment are mixed in the subtext, creating a rather sublime experience for those familiar with the couple and the history of their company’s pieces.
Chairs have been part of Gordon’s prop vocabulary since the ’70s as he sought new ways to work with this familiar home totem. (The play opens with a filmed 1980 perf of the couple doing a dance piece with similar folding chairs.) The long personal and artistic relationship between the two also gives the very old married couple they play an additional bittersweet resonance.
The production should do well at college, downtown and in intellectually enlightened markets where the company has performed in the past and — because of the classic theater title — could expand into other stages as well, especially for dance-phobic presenters.
Despite the filmed prologue and the troupe’s history, dance is not as large a presence in “The Chairs” as is the fluidity of movement and the personal rhythms — both physical and verbal — among the leading performers: Gordon, a great St. Bernard of a man, and Setterfield, wonderfully daft in a curly blond wig and knitting madly. Gliding about with effortless grace are Karen Graham and Guillermo Resto as the black-clad majordomos circling the square with chairs, rolling doors and programs, speeches and notes to discard. (They later perform as mute co-“spokespersons” — the Orator in the original text.)
But the climactic frenzy of filling the stage with chairs is a choreographic piece of mad desperation, both anxious and exhausting — Setterfield as the Old Woman has to lay down on several chairs for a time. It’s a whirligig of movement, with the couple preparing for an invisible crowd expecting to hear the old man’s great message that will justify his tedious and ineffectual life.
Though some of the play’s more tragic moments might be lost in this production, which is long on whimsy, the silly and the sweet, the couple still has a startlingly dark moment when they discover themselves separated by a world of chairs and terrified at their aloneness. The scene is chilling and lit wondrously by Jennifer Tipton.
But that’s a blip amid this couple’s sense of play in their topsy-turvy existence, where parents turn into children, spouses turn into their parents and children may or may not exist. Here, chairs are people and words are merely sounds signifying nothing. But as interpreted by a couple of veterans who know how to make the right theatrical moves and go to absurd lengths to get to them, that’s some nothing.