Sunday, June 1, 2014

For Richer or Poorer, In Shades of Gray

The third production of the Theatre for a New Audience’s (“TFANA”) first season in its new Brooklyn home, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, is the rarely produced The Killer by Eugène Ionesco as translated by Michael Feingold.  The first two and a half acts of this production are marvelous.  Director Darko Tresnjak has purposed his cast to be alternately ordinary and menacing.  They come together to portray a society that, although originally written in 1957, seems frighteningly like our own -- loud, intrusive, ill-mannered, and everyone has ADD.  There are the haves (who usually live in Radiant City, a climate- and municipally-controlled neighborhood with one little problem:  a serial killer) and the have nots, the majority, who live in a dull part of town best known for damp, chilly homes and gray skies, buildings, streets, sidewalks, people.  This dank majority is represented by Ionesco’s oft-used everyman, Berenger.  He is us, he expresses all his thoughts aloud whether there’s someone else to hear them or not.  In the latter part of the play he frequently addresses us directly as if he acknowledges there’s no one else around to hear him.  And we respond.  Even in the painfully over-long third act, when he walks slowly on a turntable and says he feels like he’s “walking in place,” we dutifully laugh.

Michael Shannon as Berenger and Robert Stanton as the Architect.  Photo credit Gerry Goodstein.
This Berenger is played by the extraordinary Michael Shannon, whose face moves from angled to soft and back, looking like everyone then only himself, as his voice mutters down and shrieks upward.  A perfect “everyman,” he gazes about the stage, talks to himself, to The Municipal Architect (a finely repressed performance by Robert Stanton), and falls immediately in love with the Architect’s secretary Dennie as she quits the protection of the Municipality and immediately falls victim to the serial killer.

Kristine Nielsen is hilarious and powerful in her two roles: the first as Berenger’s busybody concierge, who sweeps the gray dust constantly, knows everybody’s business, and gets upset to learn there are things she does not know.  In the vibrant beginning of the third act, she switches roles to become Ma Piper, a politician surreptitiously running a grass roots campaign for change.  Her change would be to change the names of things so as to not change the status quo at all, but "free soup for all."  Ms. Nielsen knows how to run a rally.  She has a following of geese whom we can hear offstage, and eventually her human followers will goosestep. 

Kristine Nielsen as the Concierge.  Photo credit Gerry Goodstein
Mr. Tresnjak’s production engages the audience physically as well as emotionally.   Characters (citizens) surreptitiously pass out fliers for Ma Piper’s political rally, and when the police come and beat citizens, said citizens reach out to the audience, even holding the hands of some, looking for comfort and support they will never receive.  The space, a thrust with audience closely surrounding three sides on the same level as the stage, with shallow balconies wrapped around the second and third levels, is intimate without seeming small, and Mr. Tresnjak and the designers have created a remarkable reproduction of the playing area Ionesco apparently described minutely in his stage directions.

Berenger, never at ease,always full of repressed energy.  Photo credit Gerry Goodstein.
Mr. Tresnjak directs his actors in a naturalistic style in an absurdist play, but for one actor, who could be from the Grand Guignol, he is so heavily made up and caricature-like.  Paul Sparks’ performance as Edward, who may or may not be a killer, is obvious, out of synch, off-key.  It jars. Until the second half of the last act, it was my least favorite part of the play.

Berenger, thinking he has discovered a clue to the identity of the serial killer who haunts the only beautiful place available for people to live, heads toward the police station. He gets caught in a effectively realized traffic jam, instructs lost people to talk to the policeman, who beats them. Berenger tries to interfere in police beatings only to be beaten himself.  When the traffic jam clears, he is alone on the stage, walking past dusk and twilight into night on a lonely road leading, we hope, to the police station, which apparently closes overnight. He walks on turntables so gets nowhere. He finally comes upon a man who stands in the shadows, a man who does not speak but sometimes laughs, and once or twice shrugs. Berenger asks him questions, accuses him of being The Killer, interrogates him, tries to psychoanalyze him all the while revealing his own reasons to kill, which he clearly suppresses. This goes on for about 25 minutes that feel like 45.  It starts off almost intriguing, but becomes tedious because it goes nowhere very slowly. Sometimes playwrights are wrong about their own work  ̶  Brecht considered his characters to be symbolic of issues, and not real people at all, but any actor can tell you that Brechtian characters are solid, three-dimensional creatures.  Ionesco may be wrong about this extremely lengthy meandering and hopelessly lost ending to an otherwise fascinating and funny piece of theatre. Because the second part of the last act runs the play to well over three hours with a disappointing ending, I can firmly place The Killer into the file of plays I need never see again.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, wondering how the play reads….

1 comment: