Monday, June 16, 2014

Off-Broadway Theater Review: Ionesco's The Killer

Michael Shannon. Photo: Gerry Goodstein
The Killer
By Eugène Ionesco
Newly Translated: Michael Feingold
Featuring Kristine Nielsen, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, and Robert Stanton in a company of 20 actors.
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn

A Puzzling Play, Where Humor Helps Put Together the Pieces
By Lauren Yarger
So what does a director who wins the Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle awards do in his spare time?

If you are Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s artistic director who just took all of those top directing honors for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, you direct a rarely seen Off-Broadway revival of Eugène Ionesco’s dark, absurdist comedy The Killer, getting a limited run as the season closer at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.

The Killer was last produced Off-Broadway in 1960, perhaps because it’s not an easy work to produce (Ionesco’s Exit the King saw success on Broadway in 2009 when Geoffrey rush took home Tony for best actor in a play and seems much lighter and funnier to me.) When I ran into Tresnjak at a Drama Desk reception held during the rehearsal period for the play, he admitted that he was finding the process very difficult. The Killer was appropriately named, he joked.

Apparently he solved the puzzle of how to make this play work, because the production, starring Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road,” “Boardwalk Empire”), Kristine Nielsen (Vanya, Sonia, Masha & Spike, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson) Paul Sparks (also “Boardwalk Empire) and Robert Stanton (a veteran stage actor whom you might know as the dad in the “Dennis the Menace” film), has been packing them in over at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn and whether or not the audience “gets it,” they’re definitely talking about it.

At the center of The Killer is Berenger (Shannon), Ionesco’s “every man” (the character who also gets the starring role in different portrayals in Exit the King, A Stroll in the Air and perhaps the best known of all of Ionesco’s plays, The Rhinoceros.)

Here, a downtrodden Berenger takes the wrong bus one day and discovers a city of light – a virtual paradise—where everything is clean, the gardens are lush and the sun shines perpetually. Lighting Designer Matthew Richards shines as he adds to the storytelling with effects that cast shadow on the less-than-Eden-like features of the paradise, evidenced by sewer grates and a creepy lagoon that appears on the dark set with rotating circles designed by Suttirat Larlarb (who also designs the costumes).

The Architect of this place (a comically adroit Robert Stanton) looks a bit familiar. He omnisciently listens to Berenger while chatting on his cell phone (the updated translation of Ionesco’s play is by Michael Feingold) and running a bureaucratic office with the assistance of Dennie (Stephanie Bunch), with whom Berenger falls in love at first sight.

There is a problem in this paradise – there is a killer on the loose and he is drowning people in that lagoon after showing them a picture of a colonel. Berenger is aided in his search for the killer by a mysterious (and quite funny) friend, Edward (Paul Sparks)

Highlight of the second act (there are three in all for just over three hours at the theater) is the appearance of a whacky (but dark, remember, this is Ionesco) concierge played by Kristine Nielsen, a favorite stage actress of mine who can make pushing a broom around seem like the funniest thing you’ve ever seen. She doesn’t disappoint here. She also plays Ma Piper, a totalitarian dictator dominating a political climate where protestors are rounded up by the police.

Shannon also gets a shining moment in a long monologue climax where he confronts the killer and tries to convince him that his actions are wrong.

Now, if you are looking for some answers about what this play is all about, let me direct you to Spark Notes. This type of theater is called absurd for a reason. Besides telling you there is a metaphor here for Original Sin and the fall of man as well as some references to the Occupy movement thanks to Feingold’s modernization of the text, there is a lot open to interpretation.

Tresnjak doesn’t try to answer the questions about life and death and purpose that are raised here, but instead focuses on the humor that helps us to ponder them. Good choice. Humor provides a way to fit the pieces of the puzzle together and if you run down to New York to see this limited run before it ends on June 29, you just might see the jigsaw come into focus.

The Killer runs through June 29 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, between Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street, Brooklyn. Performances: Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2. http://www.tfana.org/season-2014/killer/overview.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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