Maple Salsa Theatre and the University of Calgary Department of Drama
Runs until September 9
Reeve Theatre (University of Calgary)
On the back of the program for the University of Calgary/Maple Salsa co-production of Eugene Ionescos The Chairs, a former university faculty member argues for the university as a venue for plays that would not otherwise be staged in Calgary, a positive spin on the notion of academia as an "ivory tower." Here, works that could not find a mainstream audience are given a space, and the result is a richer theatrical experience both for Calgary audiences and for students learning their craft.
Unfortunately, a sound academic basis in theatre does not intrinsically provide the resonance needed to sustain a production, and The Chairs is a textbook-perfect example.
I leave the question of whether Ionescos absurdist play truly left his audiences with the experience he hoped to instil, or whether our existence is rendered absurd in its attempt to find nonexistent meaning. These are largely academic questions, after all, and they fail to quantify 80 minutes spent in the universitys Reeve Theatre.
Populating the stage with the increasing volume of imagined characters seated at the plays titular chairs, Brian Gromoff and Joyce Doolittle are themselves veterans of the universitys drama department, both former faculty members. Holding an increasingly crowded court, the two unnamed elderly characters, listed simply as Old Man and Old Woman, prepare for the arrival of The Orator. Tasked with revealing the old mans lifetime of experience as "master of the mop and bucket," distilled, The Orators address is in every way the culmination of the old mans life.
Originally written in French (titled Les Chaises), Martin Crimps translation is an unwieldy, artless mess of audience alienation and prose so thick that it practically spreads. As written, Doolittles character is little more than a chorus with a childish bent, repetitious and wide-eyed, a sort of afterthought for the far more voluminous, if not more important, ramblings of Gromoffs old man. An electric presence, Gromoff is the bright light of the otherwise bleak production, exuding a comic energy that is nearly able to carry the audience through Ionescos words.
But even Gromoffs energy is not enough to fully render the play either tragic or comic, though Doolittle and Gromoff manage to coax a few laughs as shameless flirts and foolish human beings just the same. In the plays penultimate scene, as guests and chairs arrive with increasing speed, director Javier Vilalta is unable to match the vigour of the William Tell Overture, pounding as the elderly couple scurries around the stage, chairs in hand. It is only in the climactic reveal, as the curtain withdraws to show the previously hidden magnitude of the stage, that the scene receives a truly affecting burst of life.
The philosophical and academic will always have a place on the stage, as productions offering more than simple comedy or tragedy affect their audiences and change the shape of future creations. But, when theatre attempts to reach into these territories, it always incurs a risk. Sometimes, audiences arrive to find the ivory tower cold, empty and unappealing.