Theatre for a New Audience has chosen to end its inaugural season in its new Brooklyn home with a new translation by Michael Feingold of Eugene Ionesco’s rarely performed The Killer from 1957, the first of four plays to feature Ionesco’s everyman, Berenger. While the play is by one of the founders and masters of Theater of the Absurd along with Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Harold Pinter, you would never know it from Darko Tresnjak’s literal direction. Film, television and stage star Michael Shannon takes on the extremely long leading role of Berenger but his acting style seems entirely antithetical to the absurdity of the play. At over three hours, this revival proves to be long and ultimately tedious without much payoff.
Although performed in three acts, the play breaks into four parts. In the first act, Berenger is given at a tour around a “radiant city” that he has discovered by accident near his dismal home in his grey city. The Architect who shows him around is proud of the completely artificial environment that he has created where the skies are always blue, the grass is always green and it never rains. However, there is one catch which makes the “radiant city” a failure: a serial killer has daily been drowning people in its lagoon. This has been going on for so long that the police have given up trying to catch him.
In the second act after a delightful monologue from Berenger’s chatty and cynical Concierge, he comes home to find his pale and sickly friend Edward hiding in his apartment. Edward apparently has known about the killer for some time. And surprisingly he appears to have obtained the Killer’s briefcase. Berenger insists that Edward accompany him to the authorities.
The third act is in two parts: in a near vaudeville sequence, Berenger seeks to find the briefcase (which Edward claims to have lost) by accosting various people carrying similar ones while the fascist Ma Piper holds a rally for her Goose Party. In the final sequence, practically a one act play in itself, Berenger comes face to face with the giggling Killer (whose face we never see) and attempts to convince him to stop his reign of terror, going from moral arguments to spiritual ones to finally trying to define the value of life. The final outcome is left ambiguous.
The theme of the play seems to be that good people go about their own lives and do not attempt to stop the evil all around them. Ionesco who was born in Romania in 1909 but lived most of his childhood in France appears to be warning us about the good people who stood by during the Holocaust and did nothing to stop it. Written in 1957, The Killer has the sensibility of post-World War II existentialism with its depiction of its grey city and its unhappy citizens eking out a subsistence living. Aside from its inordinate length and lengthy monologues, the play has become very dated in its outlook. This may well be what keeps the play from being revived in the United States. Feingold’s lucid and contemporary translation is fine, but the play needs a great deal of pruning as each act hits the same points over and over, ultimately being counterproductive and tiresome.
Ionesco was to use Berenger as his Everyman in three more plays that followed The Killer: Rhinoceros, Exit the King and AStroll in the Air. However, in his Theater of the Absurd masterpiece Rhinoceros, Ionesco makes use of a classic metaphor which makes this play timeless: as the townspeople conform to a mob mentality they turn into rhinoceroses. Here Ionesco is condemning the rise of such movements as Nazism, Fascism and Communism by people afraid to stand up against the crowd. While Rhinoceros plays out it theme to the very end, The Killer never gets much further than what is established in the first act.
Director Tresnjak, himself from the Balkan states, though of a later generation than Ionesco, and an award winner for his staging of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, takes Theater of the Absurd absolutely literally when it ought to be a parody of reality as we know it as man negotiates a world without meaning. Not much of this production is funny though some of the vaudeville routines would suggest that Ionesco intended to entertain. Saddled with Ionesco’s stage directions in which the first and last scenes are performed on a bare stage, Tresnjak does not seem to know how to vary the action. The use of two small revolving stages as part to Suttirat Larbarb’s scenic design are simply a distraction as they add little but offer expectations of more that is not delivered. Possibly the thrust stage of TFANA’s Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage which puts the action at a distance from most viewers is not the best place for such a play which expects you to be able to see the reactions – or non-reactions – of the characters up close.
Shannon has performed the role of Berenger before, in Chicago’s 1998 A Red Orchid Theatre production under the direction of Dan Torbica. However, Shannon’s poker-faced expressions and his tendency to say all his lines the same way does not allow for growth on the part of the character or even an understanding of his situation. In his final confrontation with the Killer in Act III, he seems to only grow more frustrated – but then so do we – as no progress is made. Unlike Shannon’s bravura performance in the solo play, Mistakes Were Made, there is a sameness to his characterization, fatal in a long play in which the main character is on stage almost throughout its length. The role of Berenger cries out for a Bill Irwin who would show us Berenger’s emotional turmoil physically at each moment. In the final analysis, Shannon seems miscast in a role that needs the technique and training of a silent clown rather than an internalized performance. For example, the mercurial Zero Mostel played Berenger in the original Broadway production of Rhinoceros.
Only Kristine Nielsen, long associated with the absurdist comedies of Christopher Durang, has the right style. Not only is her Concierge hilarious as she slyly comments on the irrationality of everyday life, she keeps surprising us as she changes her approach and her delivery. Also playing Ma Piper, the fascist leader in the third act, Nielsen continues in this vein of saying the most outrageous things with utter conviction. In the only other large roles, Robert Stanton’s Architect is bland making him less a bureaucratic functionary than a cipher, while Paul Sparks as Berenger’s friend Edward begins as sinister and then deteriorates into a man too ill to make a decision.
Much of the work of the play is left to the smoke and lights added by the designers but these elements fail to create mood on TFANA’s stage. Matthew Richards’ lighting is suitable without becoming a real character in the play even when the scenes are performed on a bare stage. The off-stage noises created by sound designer Jane Shaw don’t go far enough as Ionesco intended them to fill the stage with the off-stage crowds, locales and events that we don’t see. Larlarb’s nondescript costumes add to the sense of grey gloom described by Berenger but don’t appreciably add to the absurdity of the milieu or situation. It would seem that there was much missed opportunity for something more creative in the visual aspects of the production.
Considered a major pillar of Theater of the Absurd, Ionesco is rarely seen in New York. Theater for a New Audience’s first revival of The Killer since 1960 would seem to be a time for rejoicing. Unfortunately, even with Michael Shannon and Darko Tresnjak attached to the production, it is a disappointment in many departments.
The Killer (through June 29, 2014)
Theater for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or http://www.tfana.org
Running time: three hours and ten minutes with two intermissions