After a recent performance of Ionesco's The Chairs at the Aurora, an audience member asked Gerald Hiken, "Are you insane?" Is Hiken's character, who spends much of the play talking to an invisible on-stage audience, delusional? The Old Man talks about the world-changing message he has hired an orator to deliver while the Old Woman struggles to put out chairs for all the important personages, generals, engineers, and "postal clerks and soda jerks" that stream invisibly into the isolated tower where the couple have lived for 75 years. If the Old Man is suffering a chemical imbalance that his wife patiently humors, Ionesco's odd confection of isolation, circularity, and ringingly empty chairs might be tidily explained. Hiken was a good sport, if impish; he turned the question around and asked, "What does that do for you?" and the question remained tantalizingly unanswered, as questions about Ionesco's intentions so often do.
It is never tidy with Ionesco, who wanted to create the ultimate expression of nothingness. At first he succeeded all too well -- The Chairs played to empty houses until Ionesco's contemporary, the similarly circular Samuel Beckett, publicly defended it as a masterpiece. The Chairs, which predates Ionesco's breakthrough Rhinoceros, touches on the same themes, but is much gentler and less frenetic. The play, especially as Cliff Mayotte has chosen to direct it in a new translation by Jim Lewis, centers on the relationship between two people who have been married for so long they have become children again. They're playing a timeworn game born of their solitary existence on a remote island, but the line between make-believe and reality is wavering and growing faint. "We will no longer be orphans," says Old Woman wistfully; someone will show up to break the stultifying silence that surrounds them like the stagnant water around their tower.
This is the second time that Hiken has played an Ionescan Old Man for Berkeley audiences; the first was last March in the Rep's Rhinoceros. Last year he had one of the funniest moments, debating the question of how many legs there are on a cat. Once again he shows his sensitivity for Ionesco's repetitive rhythms. As well as a gently cantankerous presence, Hiken has a wonderful voice for the role, sometimes reminiscent of Mr. Magoo.
Barbara Oliver, meanwhile, is a beatific, sometimes seductive Old Woman, whom Old Man refers to as Semiramis. The historical Semiramis was the powerful ninth-century Assyrian queen who built Babylon as her capital. Many believed her more divine than human and that the forces of nature were hers to command. Is Ionesco suggesting that his Old Woman has power over reality, or is this what her husband believes of her? Does she have power over death, that "tragic miscarriage of justice" that so haunted Ionesco from an early age? Oliver's Old Woman is certainly powerful; she conjures up the Orator (a Chaplinesque Trish Mulholland) and brings the game to its inevitable conclusion.
The set is simple and sprightly, consisting of a skeletal, distressed structure in yellows and greens and the increasingly whimsical (and uncomfortable) chairs Oliver hauls in. David Reyes' music is brilliant, sort of French and sort of exotic, rife with jungle beats, bells, alarms, and accordions; more would be welcome.
Many of the experiments that rocked last century's audiences seem tame to us. It's possible that Ionesco is more accessible now than he was to his original audiences simply because we're conversant with a wider variety of narrative forms. Yet things are still lost in translation, such as the Old Man's description of the disappearance of Paris, which French audiences would recognize as Hitler's invasion but American audiences might not. There are nods to the present in the Aurora production (most notably the journalist saying "call the network and ask for Connie") but The Chairs still wobbles just outside of time and society, probably as Ionesco intended when he set out to create "total absence: chairs without people."