Absurd moments in The Chairs hint at reality

This weekend the St. Olaf Theater department will be showing Eugène Ionesco’s “The Chairs,” directed by Sterling Melcher ’14. The absurdist play will challenge its audience to question the nature of expectation, anticipation and experience and will leave observers to ponder the stationary-yet-dynamic journey undertaken by the play’s major characters, Old Man and Old Woman.

The playwright, Eugène Ionesco, writes in the style of the French Theater of the Absurd, a genre popular in the 1940s and 50s. Though born in Romania, Ionesco worked in Paris most of his life producing works alongside writers like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Their collective works all strove to illustrate the absurd and reflect “The human desire to reach out toward the world to try and find meaning – and then the world not answering,” Melcher said.

To illustrate this in “The Chairs,” Ionesco gives us two characters: Old Man Adam Levonian ’14 and Old Woman Laura Bretheim ’14. As the show opens, they have lived on an island together for 75 years with nobody’s company but each other’s. Each night, Old Man tells Old Woman stories and does imitations for entertainment. Each day, he prepares a message that he desperately wants all of humanity to hear.

The play goes on to tackle humanity’s search for meaning in the face of the absurd, exploring relationships, power dynamics and human potential despite the lack of meaning behind it all. “This is a play about absence,” Melcher said.

This struggle comes to light while the couple scurries to prepare for guests who will listen to the Old Man. They make these preparations through punctuated dialogue, staccatoed movement and a tinny piano line.

It would be misleading, however, to say that the narrative is explicitly depicted. The play is, by definition, absurdist, and the plot hides small and often cursory details. This isn’t a play that tells you what its message is – the audience must discern what is important while wading through layers of detail that sometimes feel unnecessary.

To some degree, this is what Melcher is aiming for. “St. Olaf views the world as a very ordered place, and I think this will challenge people,” he said. The lights, sounds, movements and dialogue in many respects defy what a student might consider a play and, Melcher said, “This show challenges not only the audience but the people who work on it.”

Actors Levonian, Bretheim and Skye Curtis ’16 worked closely with Melcher and two student musicians, Shane Allen ’14 and Stacie Argyrou ’16, who provide live musical lines that trace the performance with meaning. Lighting designed by Marcus Newton ’16 and set designed by Ann Stewart ’15 provide a physical context that also contributes to the play’s detailed-yet-absurdist nature.

“It has been a dream to work on this show with the passion that everyone has for it,” Melcher said. “What has been great is that we sometimes don’t all agree on the same thing in production, but everyone has been there with the possibilities. Everyone has worked hard on this production, without a doubt. That’s where the strength lies in this show.”

“The Chairs” will be performed in Haugen Theater from March 13-16. Tickets are for sale on the web at fusion.stolaf.edu/tickets and are free with your student ID number.