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Killing Game

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KILLING GAME

Alliance Theatre Company

at Igloo, the Theatrical Group

Eugene Ionesco's Killing Game seems to be a brilliant metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. This was not what the playwright intended, of course -- the play was first produced in 1970. But if I had wandered into the theater without knowing who wrote this play, or when, I would have assumed that the topic was the fear of AIDS that has swept the world. The parallels are so clear:

The symptoms of the plague that is sweeping through the town include swelling and spots (Kaposi's sarcoma?), and there's no cure. The deaths are increasing in a "geometrical progression," and there's talk of placing all potential carriers in quarantine. Many people believe they belong to a group that will be unaffected by the plague, but the disease keeps dashing such hopes by infecting everyone -- rich or poor, male or female, educated or ignorant, virtuous or corrupt. The dialogue contains many comments that sound like thinly disguised references to AIDS. In one scene, a citizen learns that an acquaintance, "a fine-looking specimen . . . who takes the same precautions I do," has just died. "Then I am going to die too . . . unless there's a miracle," she concludes. Another character wonders if the plague is some sort of divine punishment. An activist asserts that "this death epidemic is political!" and a politician actually tries to use the plague to build a constituency. A doctor insists that the rules set forth by the medical association will prevent death.

And so on. It's as though Ionesco' was blessed with some sort of miraculous prescience when he wrote this play. Even though the AIDS virus would remain unknown for a decade and a half, he was already capturing the anxiety, the resentment, and the sense of vulnerability caused by widespread premature death.

What Ionesco actually wrote was another diatribe against death. Ionesco has always been haunted by death. For him, it is the ultimate absurdity, the fact of life that robs life of meaning and purpose. What's the point of living, he asks, if we've just got to die eventually?

In Killing Game, he merely gave death free rein. Throughout the play, people keel over, one after the other, in a comical orgy of death. Ionesco seems to be engaging in some sort of desensitization therapy -- trying to overcome his fear of death by exposing himself to rampant death. Unfortunately, he never overcomes his obsession and moves on to more interesting themes. He just remains fixed on death, producing a play that is too long, too unfocused, and, despite his attempts at humor, not nearly funny enough.

Yet, even though the play was a flop when it premiered, and has seldom been produced since, there's ample justification for exhuming it now. The AIDS epidemic has given a new poignancy to Ionesco's fear of death, and his fear of death underscores the horror of the AIDS epidemic. Such an interpretation makes this obscure, unsuccessful work painfully relevant, and makes the theater of the absurd seem as sharp and incisive as ever.

There's just one problem -- apparently this interpretation, as obvious as it may be, has not occurred to anyone at the Alliance Theatre. K.C. Helmeid's direction makes no allusion to AIDS whatsoever. It would have been so easy to make the connection, starting with the very first scene. A man is pushing a baby carriage in the park with a male friend. They decide to go get a drink, and leave the carriage with a woman friend, who notices that the twins inside are dead. If these two men were portrayed as homosexuals going off for "a drink," Helmeid would have conjured the specter of AIDS, hinted at the disease's spread into the heterosexual population, and placed a horrifying new meaning on all the deaths that follow. Other characters could have been portrayed as heroin addicts or even as hapless victims of the disease.

Instead, the actors play it straight, presenting the play as a museum piece with no relevance at all to today. Ordinarily, I think it's out of line for a critic to suggest an entirely different interpretation for a play, but how could anyone have overlooked this one?

The 14 cast members are generally young and inexperienced, and their performances range from uninspired to competent. Stephan Cook's blustery performance style, especially when tinged with that vaguely effeminate jolliness of Robert Morley and other British actors, gives him some stage presence, and Elizabeth Muckley puts plenty of fire into her delivery, but the other cast members all sort of blur together.

The production is not particularly bad, and given Ionesco's stature, it will attract an audience. But so much more could have been done with Killing Game. A good idea is an awful thing to waste, and the Alliance Theatre has walked right past a very interesting one.

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