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Quintessence Theatre Group kicks off its 13th season with a production of Romanian French playwright Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy. Directed by Alex Burns, the three- (though mainly two) person show runs for a single unstopped act, keeping the players busy with a work steeped in abstraction.
An elderly couple at the end of their days stews over what could have been after more than 90 years of mundane living. The Old Woman acts as mother figure and lover for her husband, encouraging his spotty intellectual tendencies, sad about his disuse of them. The Old Man decides to invite all sorts of thinkers into the couple’s home to hear his long-unspoken ideas. The gradual accumulation of this invisible audience, with its endless arrivals, proves too much to be controlled by the hosts. Eventually the third actor, a long-awaited Orator, played by Alex Olson, shows up. He's there to convey the Old Man's message, bringing the story to a boiling point.
In continually overlapping monologues that hardly acknowledge or relate to one another, the couple repeatedly treads the line between babble and philosophy. The show explores aging with regret, compulsory love, repressed sexuality, and the emptiness of social graces. There are times where threads are nearly lost in a tired delivery of lines, which feels intentional. In some cases, the lighting actively pushes the unending scene forward. A dynamic and minimal soundtrack (also by Burns) enhances the handful of moments that incorporate it.
The way guests and their titular seats are handled breaks open possibilities for audience interaction. Like some other Ionesco plays, The Chairs satirizes the medium of theater itself. Frank X’s brilliant take on the Old Man calls the audience in as though they’re the guests. Though he starts off near-infantilized and full of confusion about what's going on, the character of the Old Man builds into a grand figure of nothingness. His ideas aren't present, only ever alluded to. The role demands immense range, shifting from geriatric stuttering to intensely animated bursts of clarity, full of social energy.
E. Ashley Izard’s portrayal of the Old Woman is the funnier of the pair. She tries to keep the two of them happy, though contradicts her husband's sentimentality with crassness. She simultaneously inspires and undermines his delusions. Her own unreliability occasionally appears, as she remembers past experiences differently than he does. The two actors really carry the advanced age of characters, and develop an atmosphere of skepticism about anything that could be said by anyone in the room.
The real shape of things is hard to define in The Chairs. It's a slippery play that's fun but also sometimes uncomfortable. This Quintessence production brings the play’s purgatorial energy to highly entertaining places.
What, When, Where
The Chairs. By Eugène Ionesco, directed by Alex Burns. $35. Through October 23, 2022, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. quintessencetheatre.org.
Audiences must wear a mask inside the theater.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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