The Chairs and The Shrew

Photo by Jesse Bell

I have middlebrow tendencies, but over the years I've learned that the struggle with difficult work can pay off. I grew to love Infinite Jest, once I figured out Wallace was boring me deliberately, that he cared about the mundane details that make up people's real lives. As a teenager I figured out that subtitles on BBC2 late at night meant nudity, and I wound up appreciating French cinema despite my base motivations. My favorite play from last year was a production of Beckett's End Game, which left me heartbroken for characters who should have been unrelatable, screaming at each other from trash cans.

On Sunday night I made it to the Cutting Ball's production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs. I was ready to put some work in but I hoped it would pay off. I left a little disappointed. There was a lot to chew on intellectually, and the performances were fantastic, but I never cared about what was happening. It was a puzzle, but a cold one, and I never felt there was anything at stake, despite it being set at the end of the world. The basic plot (do existentialists care about spoilers?) is that an old married couple, apparently the last people on earth, begin to host a party full of imaginary guests, and the husband prepares to give his inspiring message to the world. The 'orator' who will deliver the message appears as a flesh-and-blood person, and the couple commit suicide, and then the orator delivers what turns out to be nonsensensical gobbledegook. I could imagine a play that made this pack a punch but when the couple threw themselves out of the windows, all that was going through my mind was "How long until we hear the splash?". It didn't feel like the company's fault, the translation was strong and the acting was up to the high standard I've come to expect from the Cutting Ball. The barrier I hit was Ionesco's writing. I know he was demonstrating how the "language of society" breaks down and how hard it is to communicate, but I'm bourgeois enough to want something more than an intellectual thesis from a play. I wish I'd caught The Bald Soprano by the same director a few years ago, one of my friends told me that worked much more effectively for him, so maybe that would have helped me connect with Ionesco?

I had very different expectation for last night's entertainment, The Taming of the Shrew by TheaterPub at the Cafe Royale. I discovered the group last month when they did multiple interpretations of a short experimental play, and I knew they had attracted a team of talented and enthusiastic actors, so I was excited to see how they'd tackle Shakespeare. Shrew isn't an easy play to produce, modern audiences are going to struggle to swallow the central plot, that an opinionated woman needs to be psychologically tortured until she submits to her husband. Shakespeare can't help but write fleshed-out characters though, so there was usually enough wiggle room in the interpretation to make them sympathetic to us. The only exception was Kate's final speech, even with the emphasis that she'd only bow to her husband's honest will it was hard to see as a happy ending. Despite that quibble with the source text, the whole evening was a massive amount of fun. I loved the relish and gusto that the whole cast showed. Kim Saunder's Kate and Paul Jenning's Petrucio appropriately stole the show with big performances that had me laughing and completely believing in their tricky-to-swallow relationship. Paul seemed to be channeling the best of John Goodman and Jack Black as he played the crazy suitor, and Kim's obvious enjoyment of the tongue-lashings Kate gives to the world played perfectly. I'd also single out Shane Rhode for the energy and imagination he brought to the tough part of Grumio, playing up to the audience as he witnessed the ridiculousness unfolding along with us. Ron Talbot, Jan Marsh, Vince Faso, Brian Martin, Sam Bertken, and Sarah Stewart all deserve credit for their work too, everyone was throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their roles, and generating a lot of laughter.

There are three more performances coming up, one tonight (Tuesday March 19th), and then Monday March 25th and Wednesday March 27th, all at 8pm. If you're looking for an experience that's all theater, with an audience and cast that are all there for pure enjoyment of a play, try to make it along. The venue is incredibly relaxed (thanks to the director Stuart Bousel for gently handling a couple of folks who were ahem, a little too relaxed, when the play started), you don't need reservations, and they have great beer!

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