What Is Real?

Ionesco's 'Chairs' a great good mouthful of the absurd


“Then, at last, we arrived.”

In Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs, this is how the Old Man begins the story he’s been telling his wife, the Old Woman, every night of their 80-plus years together. That this “beginning” sounds more like an ending is a hint that what is to follow may be as circular as the tiny island the elderly couple inhabit all alone. That this phrase—”Then, at last, we arrived”—is all the Old Man recalls of the story is a hint that Ionesco’s entire enterprise is (a) a dark comedy and (b) a lesson in the futility of human existence.

Hold it. Someone make me stop.

It is amazing how difficult it is to write about a classic absurdist play such as The Chairs (1952) without giving in to the urge to offer a long, scholarly definition of the Theater of the Absurd. Though this urge arises from an honest desire to explain the absurdist designation, I shall resist the compulsion, except to suggest that, on the vast and plentiful menu of various theatrical “cuisine,” absurdist theater is the steak tartar, the escargot, the lutefisk.

In other words, it’s outlandishly unusual, but for all those who simply don’t like or understand it, there are plenty of people who absolutely love it. Theatrical epicureanism is just one of many reasons local audiences may want to snap up a seat for Ionesco’s rarely performed play. With The Chairs, in the Studio at the Sixth Street Playhouse, two of Sonoma County’s most celebrated actors appear in their very first performance at the bustling Santa Rosa venue. Eliot Fintushel as the Old Man and Elizabeth Fuller as the Old Woman are perfectly suited to the physical demands of the piece.

Under the smart direction of David Lear, they romp, rage, bump, grind and scamper through the nearly plotless one-act show, as they prepare for the imminent arrival of the Orator. This possibly nonexistent person has been engaged to recite the Old Man’s scientific paper on the meaning of life, to which “everyone” has been invited. That the couple may be the last humans on Earth is beside the point.

Once people do start arriving, they are either imaginary or invisible. Much of the fun of this production is watching Fuller and Fintushel engage each new “guest,” escorting them in, chatting them up, reminiscing about the past. Each new arrival, of course, requires a seat, and as the room fills with unseen people, Fuller and Fintushel must produce more and more chairs, soon filling up the small stage space.

Fintushel’s mastery of mimicry is put to good use here. He lets us almost “see” the invisible attendees, walking with one arm around some of them, shaking hands, placing a hand one shoulder here and there. In one particularly outrageous bit, Fuller proves how good she is by consummating a flirtation with one invisible suitor, and somehow making the moment both amusing and heartbreaking.

Are the Old Man and Old Woman crazy? Are they play-acting in order to calm their overwhelming loneliness? Or are there really invisible people, ghosts of a once-full world, who’ve arrived to hear the Old Man’s exegesis on existence? The Chairs, mirroring real life, asks plenty of such questions, then leaves the answers to the audience. In the end, largely due to the ingenious collaboration between Fuller, Fintushel and Lear, The Chairs is as perplexing as it mesmerizing. When the ending, at last, arrives, it is both poetically climactic and anticlimactic, itself a perfect encapsulation of everything that the Theater of the Absurd is.

‘The Chairs’ runs Friday&–Sunday through April 11 at the Sixth Street Playhouse. Friday&–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm; no performance April 4. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $17&–$22. 707.523.4185.

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