Author: Eugene Ionesco
At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets: 312-943-8722 or ARedOrchidTheatre.org; $50. Runs through: Aug. 5
Absurd theater is the refuge for certain breeds of white male tortured genius.
It's dismissive of average storytelling norms; has no love for governments, religions and other societal institutions; and would like you to witness the nothingness we amount to in a cruel universe, and laughor not! Audience response is irrelevant. As the character Madeleine wonders to her seat partner at a fictitious performance, "Is that all we're good for? Just to pay and applaud?" With A Red Orchid Theatre's Victims of Duty, the answer is yes, but don't fear: The crack artistic team has found dozens of other ways to entrance us that are in keeping with Eugene Ionesco's trademark mundanity.
For one, this is a remount of A Red Orchid's 1995 production that gathers the majority of the original artistic team. The production also lays out a cozy home in a dripping, water-logged industrial pit to moody effect. The questions it raises about the nature of our institutions, and the oppressive ideologies that fuel them, are poignant in a way that 1995 was not in a place to appreciate.
Average couple Choubert ( Guy Van Swearingen ) and Madeleine ( Karen Aldridge ) posit that all theater can be boiled down to detectives bringing mysteries to satisfying conclusions, then are immediately interrupted by an inspector ( Michael Shannon ) with a mystery for them. A new government-suggested policy of detachment ensures that they must put their feelings aside and help the inspector, so Choubert agrees to some impossible procedures to retrieve any memory of Mallot, the previous tenant of their flat. They are joined by poet/hilosopher Nicholas D'eu ( Rich Cotovsky ), the only entity exercising dissent, and an unnamed woman ( Mierka Girten ) who watches silently.
With a stage slogged with watery torrents from two shallow pools, director Shira Piven keeps the action surprisingly nimble and mobile; water slicks and cascades of teacups are a feature, not a bug. It helps to have such agile performers as Van Swearingen, who is broken and rebuilt so many times as Choubert, he'll make you dizzy. Michael Shannon, as the chief inspector, is an imposing tether to traditional storytelling.
The others may be exhausted and devoid of the thing he needs, but he'll insist they pay him some deference anyway. Mierka Girten and Rich Cotovsky are the silent and violent witnesses, respectively, to the inspectors' truth extraction. The performer who is hardest to tear your attention away from is Karen Aldridge, as Madeleine. She cycles through every stage of socially acceptable womanhood ( Strumpet! Crone! Nag! Caretaker! ) like a slot machine on full tilt. You may not enjoy or retain much of Victims of Duty's nonsense layers; however, with any absurd play, that's the point.