writers on dancing


Ionesco, the Optimist?

"The Chairs"
A Pick Up Performance Company Production
Edited, choreographed, and directed by David Gordon
BAM Harvey Theater
New York
December 1-4, 2004

by Nancy Dalva
copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva

The Pick Up Performance Company's production of Eugene Ionesco's "The Chairs" is a self-referential and idiosyncratic affair. Not the play, but a version of the play, tailored to to the principals, David Gordon and his wife Valda Setterfield. The play is transposed from absurdist to post-modernism, an arena in which Mr. and Mrs. Gordon function as did, in their day, Mr. and Mrs. Lunt. Like these thespian predecessors, they are glamorous, they are fabled, and they are, of course, married.

As are the characters in "The Chairs," which is only one of the aspects that must have made this play seem to them so ideally suited to themselves. Another is the actual appearance of actual chairs, which usage was novel to Ionesco in this one instance, but which is old hat to Mr. Gordon. He first employed a metal folding chair in choreographing for his wife after she had suffered an injury in a car accident. She motored on, but the chairs stayed, augmented by two other devices common in Mr. Gordon's choreography and on display in this production: framing devices (here, frames on wheels), and a split stage (here seen on an old video of the couple in a marvelous duet they did on and with folding chairs) and in the staging itself. There is also another kind of framing and splitting—that offered by the introduction of two all purpose black-clad stage manager/dancer/mummers, in the persons of Guillermo Resto ( whose sovereign dignity has never failed him, in a long and distinguished career, including twenty years with the Mark Morris Dance Group), and Karen Graham (since 1986 a stalwart of the Gordon enterprise). They are joined briefly by Aaron Burcham Heisler, an actor-dancer. It's nice to have people with wit and depth about them in any case, even when they simply carry chairs and in other ways serve as prop masters, but this show is not theirsit belongs to Mr. Gordon and Miss Setterfield—and they do nothing for the Ionesco, which Mr. Gordon feels free to augment with some vaguely dancey material for them, perhaps to stretch the show to 75 minutes. (This is a big mistake, by the way. It is not a good idea to augment something bleak and spare, because the amendments are then also diminishments.)

David Gordon works here with a new translation of the play by Michael Feingold, whose deft linguistic play aligns Ionesco with Beckett, with perhaps just a soupçon of Ogden Nash. The words are spoken gloriously by Miss Setterfield, who retains the physical daring of the dancer she has long been (trained at the Ballet Rambert, a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and so forth) with a vocal command (from despair to glee and back) that we associate with British-trained actors, who have technique to burn. Mr. Gordon, on the other hand, makes Robert DeNiro look like Sir John Gielgud. And sound like him, too. He is resolutely a New Yorker, having migrated from the Lower East Side as far as Soho. Because of this insistence on his own realness, his own reality, he is not submerged in the Ionesco. It is, instead, subsumed in him. It is, instead, subsumed in him. The translation—introducing "a producer" in place of "the orator;" the ease with all the props and their manipulation; the familiar referencing of the mechanics of the play—the pretense use of the script, the visibility of the stage management team; and most of all, the transformation of a vision that is grim to one that is of happy transcendence, and potential transformation; all this is David Gordon, not Eugene Ionesco.

In Gordon's hands, the play is about a happy couple whose long life in the theater is capped by a simultaneous retirement to the grave, to which, as Philomen and Baucis of the Greek legend, they have the good luck to retreat simultaneously. You'd never know from seeing them step cheerfully out of their frames and into the audience that they have, in the text, just committed suicide. But no matter. We still have the play. We have this new translation. We've heard the cellist Wendy Sutter play Michael Gordon's plangent and interesting score. And we've had a night with David and Valda, lit by Jennifer Tipton. If there is something optimistic about David Gordon and his "Chairs" absent in the play, who can blame him? On the evidence, his chairs and his wife—his life—have given him abundant reason to find, in Ionesco's play, a comedy, and to think that, stepping off stage together with his wife would be, indeed, a happy end.

Both photos: Jack Vartoogian.

Volume 2, No. 46
December 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Nancy Dalva


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