THE CHAIRS Eugène Ionesco’s 1952 post-apocalyptic comi-tragedy premiered the same year as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot — another post-apocalyptic comi-tragedy that defined the Theater of the Absurd, a literary movement trying to respond to the inexplicable nihilism of the Holocaust, and of the detonations of the atomic bombs that ended, or perhaps cemented the end, of World War II. Godot’s literary images are perfect — a pair of clowns in a barren land waiting for something that might provide some direction, or purpose, while habitually playing out ludicrous daily rituals as time passes, and passes them by. Less so, The Chairs, which is comparatively dense, alluding to the intersection of useless language with a world vacant of intrinsic meaning or purpose. The occupants of The Chairs are also ancient clowns, Wife (Cynthia Mance) and Husband (Bo Roberts) occupying an otherwise abandoned island after Paris, the City of Light, is a mere memory. Husband, a lord of the mop and bucket, keeps boasting of his satisfaction with life, though Wife reminds him constantly of what he could have been. His final act is to be a speech, a performance, a message for future generations, which will explain the meaning of existence. And for this performance the pair gathers chairs into their room, a makeshift stage, so that the chairs echo the chairs of the theater directly behind them. Guests are arriving, military men and the belles they seduce, and even the emperor. We hear fog horns of arriving boats and the excitement builds, a mob entirely created in the minds of Husband and Wife. For us, the chairs are empty. The are filled only by the persuasiveness of the actors to stir our imagination. And this is the emptiness — filled only by a willful act of imagination — that lies in the cavernous hollow of Ionesco’s philosophy. Garth Whitten turns in a fine, fleeting appearance as the Orator, hired by Husband to deliver his message, because Husband is too afraid to speak for himself. Frederique Michel stages, as usual, a physically beautiful spectacle, with Charles Duncombe’s production design. The production takes flight in moments, when the old couple swirls into a ballet of collecting chairs. It works best when it’s a dance. The language however, or Donald Allen’s English translation of it, is beyond the actors, who have both proved so capable in other productions here. Michel and her actors haven’t yet found a dynamic musicality that can lift Husband’s private agony beyond the redundant blasts of a tuba, or Wife’s maternal taunting beyond the peeping of a piccolo. When Husband speaks his beautiful lament, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” it’s in the same harried tone as his later confession about abandoning his dying mother. Even a play about emptiness needs rises and falls — especially a play about emptiness. The challenge is how to fill the void. City Garage, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; through September 13. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris). See Stage feature.
DON’T FORGET TO REMEMBER The title of Patricia Parker’s play is a line from a poem by Andrew Baker (Shelly Kurtz), written to remind himself to hold onto his memories as he faces the encroachment of Alzheimer’s. His life is made still harder by the fact that his wife, Dolores (Trudy Forbes), is a rigid, conservative Catholic, with a knack for denying anything in life that might be upsetting. She turns against their daughter Sarah (Lisa Clifton) when she learns the girl is a lesbian. When Sarah decides to marry her female lover, she attempts to drive her out of the house. Dolores’ denial goes into high gear when Andrew makes her promise to help him kill himself when he starts to seriously lose his faculties. Parker is an earnest writer, but her play prolongs the agony till it grows turgid and melodramatic, despite the fine efforts of a capable cast and Kiff Scholl’s mostly excellent direction. (His handling of the scenes is fine, but the “expressionist” pantomime between scenes is more confusing than helpful.) Set designer Davis Campbell makes handsome and clever use of the small space. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through September 6. (323) 960-7780 or www.plays411.com/remember. (Neal Weaver)
GO FRANZ SCHUBERT: HIS LETTERS AND MUSIC Director Peter Medak’s production offers the rare and frankly unmissable opportunity to hear and see Julia Migenes, one of the great operatic divas of our day, gloriously assay Lieder by the 19th-century composer Franz Schubert — all in an intimate 99-seat theater. The piece is essentially a concert, reminiscent in style of the great recitals by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with meager context provided by performer Jeff Marlow’s amiable rendition of selected letters by Schubert. Yet this doesn’t seem to matter much when Migenes’ incredible soprano fills the theater. The show, which Migenes conceived with Phillipe Calvario, consists of a broad stroke biography of Schubert, the wunderkind composer (and protégé of Antonio Salieri, though that’s not much to brag about these days) whose prodigious output of hundreds of songs and operas was cut short by his death from syphilitic complications in 1828. Marlow’s turn as Schubert presents a youthful, perhaps manic-depressive rake, who’s understandably driven by his passions — his rage over not achieving the career goals of being a professional musician is offset by his devotion and love for his art. Throughout his rendition of Schubert’s letters, Marlow is shadowed by Migenes, as a sort of angelic muse, echoing the passions and thoughts of the composer through his songs. A moment in which Schubert expresses despair and frustration is followed by Migenes’s beautifully simple rendition of Schubert’s paeon of forgiveness, “Du Bist Die Ruh.” A moment of rage is followed by a thundering “Die Junge Nonne.” The showstopping finale consists of Migenes’ chilling “Ave Maria” — a gesture of benediction, sung as Schubert himself dies. The play is frankly not for musical neophytes and it is best to do due diligence on Schubert and his Lieder before coming to the theater — but Migenes, assisted by pianist Victoria Kirsch’s deceptively simple accompaniment, offers a powerful and compelling theatrical experience. Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 23. (310) 477-2055. (Paul Birchall)