Victims of Duty
At the A Red Orchid Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago – In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Theater of the Absurd was the rage of Western theater with its radical departures from conventional drama and its probing into philosophical and psychological themes that helped popularize such weighty terms as alienation and existentialism. The Irish-French writer Samuel Beckett was the high priest of the Theater of the Absurd but at his elbow was the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco.
Ionesco first gained the spotlight with a string of short plays in the early 1950’s that dealt symbolically and theatrically with such chewy matters as the absurdity of everyday existence and the inability of individuals to communicate with each other. They may have been heavy going for the average theatergoer but the avant garde presentations heavily impacted the off Broadway, college, and cutting edge regional theater scene.
We don’t see much of the Theater of the Absurd these days aside from an occasional revival of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” With the decline of off Broadway and the domination of musicals on Broadway, the “Theater of the Absurd seems to have disappeared except in textbooks surveying postwar theater history.
The small but venturesome A Red Orchid Theatre scored a hit in the mid 1990’s with its production of Ionesco’s 1953 one-act play “Victims of Duty.” The company is reviving the show for a short run, suggesting that interest in the Theater of the Absurd has not been totally extinguished. The entire run was sold out within two hours of tickets going on sale. The play may be the big draw or possibly the appearance of Michael Shannon primed the box office pump, Shannon now being one of the major acting eminences in Hollywood.
“Victims of Duty” runs for about 85 minutes, plenty of time to display many of the facets of the Theater of the Absurd in all their perplexing but entertaining variety. The play’s mood ricochets from farce to tragedy. The evening is drenched in ambiguities, grotesque shifts in style, and bits that seem realistic in themselves but make no sense, at least superficially, when combined.
Early on, viewers should recognize that Ionesco isn’t telling a linear story. Audiences are advised to accept the play’s abrupt shifts and just go with the flow. Trying to analyze each unexpected moment will result in the playwright’s personal vision being suffocated in the noise the viewer’s mind makes in attempting to figure out what Ionesco is up to. It’s surprising how readily viewers will accept Ionesco scene by scene if they just let the play to come to them.
The play is set in the apartment of a middle aged married couple named Madeleine and Choubert. The couple trades banalities for a few minutes before a police detective enters. He is looking for a former tenant named Mallot who seems to have disappeared, and can the married couple help him with his inquiries? We never learn why the detective is seeking Mallot (insisting that the man he seeks must have a “t” at the end of his name). We briefly get a glimpse of the purported Mallot in a photo of what looks like a police lineup flashed on the back wall. At first the detective is diffident, almost apologetic, but he soon turns aggressive and belligerent. The detective demands that Choubert search his subconscious for information about Mallot and the play then drifts into intense dreamlike monologues spoken by both Choubert and the detective in which they seem to take on the roles of father and son.
Madeleine alternates from housewife to sexpot and there is much splashing about in an old fashioned bath tub that is the major prop on the stage, as well as in a small pond in the patio. The detective makes outrageous demands that Choubert readily accepts, though with some complaining. Near the end of the play the detective forces the man to eat what looks like a long French role intended to plug holes in his memory. Choubert cries that the object is a piece of wood that is tearing up his mouth but he manages to consume the object nevertheless.
Near the end of the play a stylishly dressed woman suddenly appears, her identity or purpose unexplained, a mystery character who has about three lines. Then enters Nicolas D’eu, a bearded poet who pronounces ideas on classic drama and ultimately murders the detective with a knife, as the other characters look on with apparent approval. The detective’s dying words are “Long live the white race!” though there had been no racial references previously.
Likewise the projections played on the black wall include filmed scenes of what looks like Nazi youth on display, again though there has been no political commentary. And periodically the characters production tiny American flags they wave about, their purpose eluding me.
These incidents are just a sampling of the seemingly arbitrary nature of “Victims of Duty” (the play’s title is sort of explained a couple of times but I didn’t quite catch the explanation, nor did my lack of understanding bother me. From the opening moments I conceded the intelligibility of the playwright’s writing, with its humor and startling transitions and non sequiturs. If Ionesco wanted to parody American detective stories, fine. If his play is intended to a commentary on the savage absurdity of existence, so be it, though I didn’t pick up on that theme. But there is no question that “Victims of Duty” is written with eloquence and humor cleverly mixed with nightmarish tensions. The spectator who accepts the play as written and doesn’t fight the text for answers to its symbols will be just fine.
“Victims of Duty” may be illogical but it isn’t incoherent.
The five-member cast includes three veterans of the original local staging, Shannon (the detective), Guy Van Swearingen (Choubert), and Mierka Gerten (the lady). Joining them are Karen Aldridge as Madeleine and Rich Cotovsky as the poet. They are all outstanding, with special props to Shannon and Van Swearingen for their skill at physically and psychologically shifting gears practically from moment to moment. Van Swearingen’s must be saluted for his stamina at credibly climbing and meandering and crouching and splashing and crying out during his subconscious ramblings all over the stage.
I have nothing but admiration for Shira Piven’s directing. She has orchestrated her gifted cast and creative team of designers through the thicket of Ionesco’s discontinuities. An impatient or literal-minded spectator may get restless but Piven is in command of the play’s outward randomness and arbitrariness all the way, turning what could have come across as puzzling and pretentious into a short evening of inventive and stimulating theater. There are no translation or adaptation credits in the playbill but I presume Piven is using a primary source. In any case, she has nailed the script for an English audience.
The design team consists of Danila Korogodsky (design), Mike Durst (lighting), and Brando Triantafilou (sound, including his subliminal but eerily atmospheric dripping water effect). The A Red Orchid theater is a perfect fit for this chamber piece, with the audience physically on top of the action in the intimate acting space.
In the end, “Victims of Duty” is an enigmatic play, not for every audience taste. The importance of the Theater of the Absurd now seems more historical than artistic in value. In its time, the postwar condition of society opened the door for essentially pessimistic plays that question the values of the day, often in an abstruse and arbitrary manner. But even discounting the dated nature of the content, “The Victims of Duty” has its rewards, especially in the A Red Orchid’s resonating production. For those patrons lucky enough to score a ticket, it’s perhaps the most rewarding 85 minutes currently on a Chicagoland stage.