A pair of nonagenarians are the only characters visible throughout most of The Chairs, but who knows how many invisible ones there are on stage by the end of Eugène Ionesco’s “tragic farce,” the latest production from A Noise Within—and a terrific one as might be expected from California’s Home For The Classics.

Parisian audiences didn’t know what to make of The Chairs when it debuted in 1952 France, though in a country still turned topsy-turvy by World War II, its message about the absurdity of life, the loneliness of our existence, and our need for interpersonal contact must have reached at least some of its first spectators. Then again, fifty-nine years ago no one had yet heard of “Théâtre de l’Absurde,” the term not even coming into existence until 1960.

Even today, there will be those in the audience at A Noise Within who won’t be able to make head nor tale of The Chairs, and to those I would simply say, “Don’t sweat it.” With a pair of performances as tour-de-force as those given by Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang, ticketholders are guaranteed first-rate entertainment regardless of how many times they may find themselves scratching their heads.

The plot (if you can call it that) revolves around the Old Man’s efforts to transmit his “message” to the world, with the help of his wife and (near the end of the play) an Orator who arrives on the scene eager though not necessarily able to be of assistance.

In the meantime, invisible guest after invisible guest shows up, the Old Woman bringing out a chair for each until the stage is filled with as ragtag a bunch of dilapidated chaises as you’re likely to see in a lifetime of theatergoing. Eventually, the Old Man is obliged to assist his wife, their race to provide enough seating equipment for their rapidly lengthening guest list reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel’s efforts to keep wrapping candies as that darned conveyer belt zipped by faster and faster.

The irony (and absurdity) with which Ionesco chooses to conclude The Chairs can only be hinted here. Suffice it to say, there are times when it pays a person to stick around till the bitter end just in case something might go wrong at the last moment.

Despite a few slower-moving passages, The Chairs entertains from start to finish under Julia Rodgriguez-Elliott’s inspired direction, with a pair of bravura lead performances and an exceptional scenic, lighting, costume, and sound design package to boot.

Anyone who has seen any of the myriad roles performed by Elliott and Strang over the past two decades will not be surprised that A Noise Within’s First (Acting) Couple create as memorable a pair of old codgers as imaginable. Elliott gets to play the Old Man not only as a suicidal geezer but as a whining toddler as well, and does both to perfection, Strang matching him in a role that has her alternately coddling her hubby/child and getting his goat as only a longtime spouse knows how to do.

Andy Stoten appears near The Chairs’ grand finale and makes the absolute most of a minimum of material.

With all those chairs, designer extraordinaire Stephen Gifford gets double credit for The Chairs, for scenic and properties design, and both are superb. How he found as many different varieties of chairs and then got them to look as if they were the victims of centuries of misuse and a perfect match for the peeling walls of the Man and Woman’s ramshackle abode is anybody’s guess.

Angela Balogh Calin’s pair of costumes are also marvels of dilapidation (and even required a costume assistant, Kellsy MacKilligan). Ken Booth’s sensational lighting design is every bit as complex as Ionesco’s script, and Andrew Villaverde’s sound design is a winner too, with its many effects (though per Ionesco’s instructions not the sounds of all those guests’ voices until the bitter end).

Dale Alan Cooke is stage manager, Stoten assistant stage manager, Tameé Seidling sound board operator, Monica Lisa Sabedra wig, hair, and makeup designer, Meghan Kennedy production manager, Adam Lillibridge technical director, Ronnie J. Clark master technician, Alexandra Dunn scenic artist, and Sarah-lucy Hill production assistant.

As A Noise Within prepares to leave its longtime home in Glendale for a brand spanking new space in Pasadena, Angelinos are advised not to miss any of the three brilliant productions now playing in repertory and set to close in a matter of weeks: The Comedy Of Errors, Eccentricities Of A Nightingale, and The Chairs. With one classic from the 1590s and two from the 1950s (or thereabouts), A Noise Within says Farewell to Glendale on a high trio of notes indeed.

A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale
Click here for current performance schedule, closing date, and reservation line.
–Steven Stanley
May 11, 2011
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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