Ionesco’s The Chairs Features Stellar Lineup of IKEA All-Stars

EJ Dickson, Arts Editor

Among the list of student grievances against Oberlin — the brutal weather, the lack of off-campus housing, the preponderance of the term “problematic” in classroom discussions — chief among these gripes is the lack of diversity on campus. Yet the cast of The Chairs, College senior Moze Halperin’s take on Ionesco’s absurdist drama, confirms that diversity at Oberlin is alive and well, at least in the squash court at Philips. From lawn to rocking to wicker to desk, Halperin’s company members hailed from a wide-ranging panoply of backgrounds and experiences, a joyous celebration of multi-chairalism that was paralleled only by the talents of the performers on display (with the possible exception of the wicker chair, who at certain points was indicating, and the rocking chair, who I thought totally phoned it in).

While such a flippant discussion of on-campus diversity may strike the reader as snarky or silly, this flippant approach to weighty issues characterizes the theater of the absurd. Cartoonish, frenetic and positively reveling in its inanity, Halperin’s production of The Chairs revealed the grim truths of the human condition — the malaise of aging and the cyclical nature of everyday life— with a wink and a smile (and the occasional pratfall/poop joke thrown in for good measure).

Set in a post-apocalyptic seaside shack, the play documents the party preparations of blue-skinned couple Old and Olde (played, respectively, by Halperin and College senior/co-star/co-director Anya Kazimierski) as they await the arrival of their esteemed guests, including an ambiguous Orator figure. Lacking the necessary verbal capacities for self-expression, Old assigns the Orator the task of relating his infinite wisdom to his guests in one single, awe-inspiring speech. As the blue figures shuffle about in their little blue house like the titular characters in the Eiffel 65 single, they prepare for the Orator’s entrance by recounting grotesque narratives from the past, staging a bizarre pantomime of their static, meaningless existences.

To anyone who has read the work of Ionesco or Beckett, this summary may sound overly simplistic; to anyone unfamiliar with absurdist tradition, it may sound pretentious or inaccessible. Yet as Old and Olde, Halperin and Kazimerski delivered impeccably goofy performances that resisted both of these interpretations. The production’s “physical advisor,” College senior Kai Evans, clearly did her job well: Although much of the play’s humor derived from the two mimicking each other’s bodily tics, Kazimierski’s assertive, Minnie Mouse physicality served as an appropriate counterpart to Halperin’s robust yet understated energy, which channeled the physical comedy skills of silent film star Charlie Chaplin (although it’s likely that Halperin’s similarly formidable mustache served as the primary basis for this comparison).

Aside from the actors, the contributions of the (non-furniture) talents on display — from the costume design to College senior Ricky Ostry’s projections of family photos mounted on the wall (part of his senior project) — were integral to Halperin’s unified, singularly peculiar artistic vision. Exquisitely ugly makeup and costumes — a general uniform for Halperin, inexplicably decorated with a “World’s Greatest Dad” pin, and a hausfrau smock for Kazimierski — helped build the remote, post-apocalyptic Bizarro World occupied by the play’s characters. The haunting projections further toyed with conceptions of the nuclear family; an animated wedding portrait, for instance, served as a mocking reminder of the frailties of family ties, particularly during one provocative scene where an unseen party guest gives Olde a shuddering, surreptitious under-the-table orgasm.

A whimsical yet economical translation, also by Halperin, prevented The Chairs from veering into inaccessible or masturbatory terrain. The grim, weighty and quintessential Frenchness of lines like “time has tooted away, fast as a dream made tracks on our skin” were balanced by delightful non sequiturs and other fits of verbal silliness, with a few introspective gems thrown in for good measure.

The location — the box-like squash courts at Philips — added a touch of claustrophobia to the grotesque banality of the couple’s environment. With a packed house, hot lights and nary a fire exit in sight (not to mention the myriad of chairs blocking the only visible entrance, an Olsen twin-sized door), the feeling of being unable to escape my surroundings certainly reflected the experiences of the characters onstage, who bounced back and forth underneath enormous gold frames like balls in a game of Pong.

Yet it was the diverse array of the chairs on display — the lackluster rocking chair included — that ultimately gave the most evocative performances of the evening. As the Orator’s arrival rapidly approaches, the malaise of what Olde refers to as the “modest yet brimming life” becomes almost as overwhelming a presence as the chairs themselves, which are recklessly piled onstage for the party guests. What eventually evolved into a frenetic ballet of furniture pieces serves as the backdrop for the collapse of time, space and traditional chair taxonomies.

With all of the evening’s performers gathered onstage, the Orator (played by College senior and acting advisor Lauren Friedlander, in shorts and squash goggles) makes her long-awaited arrival. Unbeknownst to Old and Olde, the Orator is a deaf mute; she is as ill-equipped to deliver Old’s message — and, by extension, the message of the play — as Old himself. Assured that their life story is in capable hands, the couple commits suicide by throwing themselves off the second level of the squash courts. The Orator then slathers her message — a nonsensical string of gibberish — on the back wall with a paint roller, culminating in a flawlessly orchestrated anti-climax that is as ridiculous as it is sublimely tragic.

In the play’s final moments, only the chairs are left behind for the audience to consider in the wake of this devastation. While this ending could be interpreted as a reflection on the futility of the human condition, my (absurdly) optimistic brain thought otherwise. The highbrow (Ionesco’s text) joined with the lowbrow (the aesthetics of Eiffel 65), theater majors intermingling in the Philips lobby with campus athletes, lawn chair and rocking chair enjoined underneath the harsh stage lights: Diversity is assuredly thriving at Oberlin, and it’s “problematic” to assume otherwise.