A Red Orchid Theatre
By Nick Green
"There's nothing more real than a mirage," comments Berenger, the everyman in Eugene Ionesco's 1958 farce about the absurdity of life in the face of inescapable death. Berenger's proposition is ridiculous, of course, but he looks upon the world with naive, idealistic eyes. He hasn't yet realized, for example, that the seemingly utopian housing project he's about to move into is a facade covering the city's underbelly of social ills and urban decay. Berenger's perspective is consistently skewed: He shuffles through life counterclockwise; his actions are counterintuitive. Paradoxically, he's completely self-aware yet thoroughly ignorant of his surroundings.
Usually Ionesco's characters come across as animated symbols and metaphors, the physical manifestations of broad abstract themes. In high absurdist fashion, they're often mechanical and grotesque. So Berenger--a character loosely modeled on Ionesco himself--is something of an anomaly. He's as realistic as he is ridiculous, a bundle of complex and often conflicting passions. And Ionesco was sufficiently fascinated by his own dramatic alter ego to resurrect him in three additional plays: Rhinoceros (1959), Exit the King (1962), and The Pedestrian in the Air (1963).
Often regarded as one of Ionesco's finest, most fully realized works, The Killer finds Berenger fantasizing about confronting a brilliant mass murderer who drowns his victims in a swimming pool. Vainly attempting to rally the support of his alarmingly indifferent fellow citizens, Berenger takes it upon himself to track the killer, following a trail that leads first to his own apartment and ultimately to a darkened Paris street corner. The play's climax--initially a simple standoff between Berenger and the killer--pits Berenger against himself as he struggles to retain his individuality and childish morality.
Too many productions of Ionesco's plays favor pretentious, arty posturing as a means of compensating for a simplistic understanding of the playwright's existentialist worldview. But A Red Orchid Theatre's production of The Killer is admirably evenhanded; it finds a balance between Ionesco's script and his characters, focusing on text as much as subtext. And Dan Torbica's detail-oriented direction helps keep the play moving at a brisk clip despite its nearly three-hour running time.
Torbica's staging breaks the fourth wall early and often: the cast periodically enter and exit through the theater aisles, a smart choice in A Red Orchid's small, intimate space, helping to bridge the gap between audience and actors. Allowing the action to extend beyond the stage strips away some of the play's theatricality. Torbica also handles the heavily choreographed bits effortlessly: a slapstick routine at the beginning of the third act, when a handful of actors wrestles for control of a briefcase, is extremely fluid.
Torbica isn't afraid to take chances, either. Ionesco's stage directions call for the first half of the second act, which is set in Berenger's drab, dingy apartment, to be played in complete darkness while the audience is assaulted by a barrage of offstage noises. But Robert G. Smith's lighting and set design allow the audience to observe random passersby through Berenger's curbside window, including a man looking for a prostitute, a Scottish efficiency expert, and a balladeering drunk. This bit of voyeurism provides more than a few moments of guilty pleasure, but it also detracts from the tension of watching the mysterious figure in Berenger's apartment waiting onstage, shrouded in darkness.
There are a number of fine performances in The Killer. Michael Shannon's portrayal of Berenger is particularly intense, as he inflates his maladroit character's eccentricities to gargantuan proportions, drawing laughs in even the most sobering or morbid moments. And in the play's gut-wrenching climax, which transforms Berenger into a tragic figure, Shannon displays a deep understanding of his character, perfectly executing his jarring dramatic turnaround. Bringing depth and color to smaller roles are Rich Hutchman as a snotty French bistro owner, Kristen Fitzgerald as the Marxist politico Mother Peep ("And to disalienate mankind, you must alienate the individual!"), and Bill Bannon as the shifty, bureaucratic architect.
The only element that seems out of place is Joseph Fosco's sound design. Full of ambient noises and snippets of grim, ominous music, it stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the production, constantly reinforcing the underlying theme of alienation--which this otherwise lively, energetic staging unfortunately tends to mute. But that's a rather small point, certainly not enough to seriously detract from a thoroughly engrossing production.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Daniel Guidara.