LENOX — Shakespeare & Company artistic director Allyn Burrows was looking for a classical comedy for the fall slot on the theater company’s schedule when he called director James Warwick to see if he had anything up his sleeve.
Warwick came up with Eugene Ionesco’s “The Chairs,” an oldie but a goodie from the Theater of the Absurd days of the mid-1950s to the early ’60s.
Warwick recalled having seen a memorable revival of this 1952 absurdist masterpiece in London in 1997. It co-starred the late Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwen as a nonagenarian married couple — known only as The Old Man and The Old Woman — who live in a house on a remote island. The Old Man is preparing to deliver a message to all mankind on the meaning of life. He has invited everybody to attend, “all the important people” from proletarians, parliamentarians, reactionaries and revolutionaries to “The Pope, the popinjays, and the papers.”
The memory of that London production — which came to Broadway in the spring of 1998 — lingered in the recesses of Warwick’s mind; an intriguing possibility for some time in the future.
The future is now. Warwick’s production of what Ionesco dubbed a “tragic farce” began performances Friday, Oct. 8, at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse, where it is scheduled to run Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 31.
“The Chairs” is a masterpiece of theater’s absurdist movement by perhaps its most significant avant-garde figure, Ionesco, whose body of work includes “Rhinoceros,” “The Bald Soprano,” “The Lesson,” “Exit the King,” “Macbett,” and “Jack, or the Submission.”
Born in Romania in 1912 of a Romanian father and French mother, Ionesco spent much of his childhood in Paris. He completed his schooling in his homeland and studied at the University of Bucharest. He returned to France in 1938 to write poetry and criticism. In 1948, he turned to playwriting. He died in March 1994.
“Absurd” typically refers to something that is ridiculous, laughable. For Ionesco and other absurdists — count philosopher Albert Camus and playwrights Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and, in much of his early work, Harold Pinter among them — “absurd” has philosophical context. Ionesco defined absurd as “that which is devoid of purpose.
“Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless,” Ionesco wrote.
In an in-person interview on the terrace outside the Tina Packer Playhouse, where he was joined by his actors, Malcolm Ingram and Barbara Sims, Warwick described “The Chairs” as a play about two people “who have become isolated over the 75 years of their marriage and just keep going round and round. I just felt now was the time to revisit this play.”
Ingram sees comments about authoritarianism in Ionesco’s text. “That makes the play relevant ... at a time when democracy is under serious threat,” Ingram said.
Ingram has seen only two productions of “The Chairs” — one in high school, which he said wasn’t funny; and another that was “very funny” at the University of Syracuse where he was associate professor in the drama department.
“I had come to think of the play as a 90-minute sketch,” Ingram said, “but now I’m appreciating (its) humanity ... much more.”
Among the directorial challenges for Warwick has been finding the right balance between the play’s comedy on the one hand and its absurdism on the other; absurdism that borders on tragedy.
Also critical, Warwick said, is “finding the relationship of these two people and finding it as deep and layered as Ionesco has written them.
“If the play is going to work you have to identify with and follow the lives of these two characters.”
“These two people are so deeply committed to one another,” Warwick said; “to their truth,” added Sims, who replaced Ingram’s wife, Elizabeth Ingram, who was battling lyme disease and had to drop out.
“They play games with each other,” Warwick said. “She eggs him on. They talk about responsibility but they both seem to have a deep sense of loneliness and unfulfillment.”
The couple also share a reality of their own making. For them, the unreal people in the chairs are real. Ingram and Sims agree that, as actors, seeing what is unseen, making visible and specific what is not visible is a major part of their work.
Warwick, Sims and Ingram believe “The Chairs” is about nothing less than the human condition. Given the play’s form and content, Sims has no doubt some audience members will leave at the end of the show thinking “what was that?”
“That’s okay,” Sims said. “It means they’re talking about it.