Victims of Duty: An absurd show for absurd times | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Victims of Duty: An absurd show for absurd times

A Red Orchid revives its 1995 staging for the Trump era.


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"We are not ourselves." —Victims of Duty

A Red Orchid Theatre first produced Eugène Ionesco's Victims of Duty in 1995. Ah, those were simpler times, were they not, mon ami? Bill Clinton was in the White House, lying plenty but at least not gratuitously. At least you felt there was a rational bedrock to his lies and a temperamental preference for the truth in his politics. Or maybe you didn't. But it was a possible feeling to have. I dare you to have it now, about Donald Trump. Or Congress. Or the news. Or the Internet. The needle has moved. Moved? Hah! The needle is gone. I feel like I live inside a giant baby's bouncy toy, and the kid keeps knocking it across the room.

Which is approximately why the folks at A Red Orchid decided it's time for another go at Victims of Duty. "When we did it then, its meanings were deep for us, very personal and somewhat abstract," says a program note from Shira Piven, who directed both the current and 1995 productions. "Now there is also a social/political resonance that we can't escape, as much as we might want to."

The play is an apt choice for anybody trying to catch a scary zeitgeist. It premiered in France in 1953, the seventh in a series of eight short, radically original Ionesco plays that started with The Bald Soprano (1950), fed off the vertigo of World War II, and defined what came to be known as the theater of the absurd. Like Soprano, Victims of Duty opens on a scene of conventional domestic tranquility. Choubert is sitting in his apartment, reading a newspaper. His wife, Madeleine, knits nearby. They discuss this and that: unpicked-up dog poop, Aristotle, and the new government announcement "urging all the citizens of the big towns to cultivate detachment." There's a knock at the door. It's the Detective. He isn't even looking for them but for the concierge, who never seems to be home. They're so accommodating, though—and the detective is so handsome, well mannered, and nicely dressed ("What a wonderful pair of shoes!")—that they offer to see if they can't help him.

Big mistake. The Detective is looking for a malefactor named Mallot. Does Choubert know him? No? Well, no matter. Through a process of bullying and insinuation, the Detective convinces not only himself but Choubert that Choubert is Mallot's pal.

There follows a strange, strenuous, perfectly ridiculous, and utterly extraordinary sort of psycho-picaresque: Choubert getting submerged in mental mud and flying off mental mountains, half-dead, dazed, ecstatic, as the Detective and an all too cooperative Madeleine force him to track down the elusive Mallot. In one vignette that amounts to a throw-away masterpiece, Choubert finds himself in conversation with his dead father, their confrontation rendered at once harrowing and inane by the fact that neither can hear the other.

In a way—a big way, really—Victims of Duty is only incidentally political. It's mostly designed to satirize the state of French culture, with Choubert's various adventures doubling as parodies of what a native audience would recognize as familiar tropes, styles, and philosophies. (Detective to Nicholas, a poet who turns up late in the play: "Everyone ought to write." Nicholas to Detective: "No point. We've got Ionesco and Ionesco, that's enough!") Still, the Detective's menace, Choubert and Madeleine's suggestibility, their collective obedience to pointless government orders, and, particularly, their centerlessness—the way they torque their identities, language, and even senses to the mirage of authority—all speak loudly to the current giant-baby-bouncy-toy moment.

Focused on that moment, Piven doesn't seem to have a strategy for dealing with the satire. She neither cuts names like that of Paul Bourget, a forgotten French literary god, nor finds ways to make them legible to a 21st-century Chicago audience. More important—and I know this will sound strange—she doesn't do much to ground the absurdity in normality. Choubert and Madeline are first discovered, for instance, sitting beside a bathtub, which is absurd enough in itself that their subsequent actions lose some of their shock value. The uses to which she puts the tub and a second pool of water, however, make for wild if arbitrary fun.

And then too, she's got Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen, both of whom were in the 1995 staging. A close relative of his villain in The Shape of Water, Shannon's Detective makes excellent use of that familiar pained grimace that says, See what you made me do? to his prey. Van Swearingen, meanwhile, has the physical chops to render Choubert's descents and ascents vivid. Karen Aldridge is similarly agile, taking Madeleine from catty to ancient to erotic at will.   v

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