Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
When: through Aug. 5
By ANNE SPISELMAN
A Red Orchid Theatre is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a special summer reprise of one of its first shows: Eugène Ionesco’s “Victims of Duty.” Originally staged by the company in 1995, the production reunites stars Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen with director Shira Piven and production designer Danila Kotogodsky.
The French-Romanian playwright’s early one act was first produced in 1953, in the wake of the Nazi occupation of France and World War II, and in Piven’s staging—at least this time around (I missed the initial outing)–the socio-political implications resonate strongly. Even without explicit directorial touches like the tiny American flags (the sort you’d see decorating drinks or canapes) characters wave at a couple of points, the parallels between the system of “detachment” recommended by the government in the play and our own are disturbing, as are the costs of obedience and conformity in a society where suggestions soon become rules and even those resisting are subverted. And that’s not to mention Choubert’s (Swearingen) harrowing, seemingly never-ending inner journey or one of the Detective’s (Shannon) last utterences, “Long live the white race….” Or that by the end of the 90 minutes and quite a lot of horrific behavior, all the characters claim to be “victims of duty.”
The evening begins innocuously enough with bourgeois everyman Choubert and his wife, Madeleine (the marvelous Karen Aldridge), spending a quiet evening at home in their flat. But even here, Piven, Kotogodsky, and the other designers throw us off kilter. The centerpiece of the set is a partially filled clawfoot bathtub in a sunken area, with Madeleine sitting on a stool crocheting on one side and Choubert in a chair reading his newspaper on the other. On the back wall, also used for projections, is “Zwei Köpfe,” a childlike painting by Ionesco. Flanking the central area are a framed structure with a pool of water and a raised platform/perch that becomes a mountain top.
One subject of conversation is the cinema and theater, a topic that reoccurs throughout the play with Ionesco poking fun at the tropes of the day and making a case for radical change. Choubert complains that there is nothing new to be done in theater, noting, among other things, that all plays are realistic thrillers with a detective bringing an investigation to a successful conclusion in the final scene.
While this could be a source of whimsy and humor, Shannon’s Detective, who arrives at this point and insists on being addressed as “Chief Inspector,” turns it into a cause for fear. After a few minutes of mild niceties, the actor begins to exude the frightening air of menace for which he’s become famous, as he questions Choubert about the previous tenant of the flat, specifically whether his name was spelled Mallot with a “t” or with a “d.”
Tensions also emerge between Choubert and Madeleine, who morphs from wife to seductress to old lady to mother, as the Detective forces her husband to go down, down, down into his memory because, although he remembers the spelling of Mallot’s name, he doesn’t recall how, or even if, he even knew him. The quest is fraught with intense emotions, including a guilt-ridden encounter between Choubert and his father, who can’t hear each other, a walk through bombed-out Paris with is mother holding his hand, and an escape via an imagined flight.
Of course, since this is Theater of the Absurd, it’s hard to make heads or tails of it all. The search for Mallot seems pointless, especially since we never learn what he’s done or why the Detective is so determined to find him. Madeleine changes from one moment to the next, at one point expressing great love for her husband, at another appearing to be complicit with the detective in some sort of game, though the specifics are murky. The late appearance of two other characters, Nicolas D’eu (Richard Cotovsky), who may or may not be a poet but hates detectives, and The Lady (Mierka Girten), who’s addressed as Madame but insists she’s Mademoiselle, also is a mystery, though it leads to the violent, upsetting denouement that, naturally, doesn’t fit Choubert’s definition of theater at all.
In a press release for “Victims of Duty,” a Red Orchid Artistic Director Kirsten Fitzgerald explains that when she saw the show in 1996, she wasn’t sure it made logical sense but “it made perfect emotional sense and was viscerally stunning,” The actors are older now and times have changed, but that assessment still rings true.