Pictured: Michael Mejia, Dennis Bisto, and Abby Blakenship. Photo by Chris Popio
By Aaron Lockman
As I’ve aged, my taste in theatre has aged with me. For instance, it used to be that when I watched “Twelfth Night,” I related most to Feste, the off-putting and omniscient fool. But now, perhaps concernedly, I identify most with the villain Malvolio, whose only crime was yelling at his roommates to be quiet while they were partying in the middle of the night (and for this, he is humiliated and jailed? A travesty, honestly).
But another thing that’s happened during my fall from a bright, optimistic 22-year-old to a bitter, jaded 24-year-old, is that I have grown to outright dislike Eugene Ionesco as a playwright. Yes, I know, he’s the father of absurdism, and I know that the fact that none of his characters listen to each other – and speak mostly in unhinged nonsensical monologues – is the point. I could talk all night about how I think his political observations are at once unsubtly blunt and completely unintelligible, buried as they are under layers and layers of quirk. I could talk about how just a smidge of structure might have given his plays some staying power, how his quaint misogyny does nothing for me. . . but ultimately, a lot of this just comes down to taste. Many eloquent defenses of Ionesco have addressed each point I just made, and none of them have swayed me, and the only reason I can give is that I just don’t like the guy’s writing.
I realize then, that I am a bit biased on this front, so please do take everything I’m about to say with a healthy grain of salt.
Now, that is not to say that the right team can’t pull order from the chaos and put on some compelling Ionesco; the 1974 movie of “Rhinoceros” with Zero Mostel is living proof. But sadly, aside from some lovely visuals, eye-catching performances, and moments of clarity, Trap Door’s production doesn’t achieve that goal.
A synopsis of “The Killer” is difficult, as the play is hung on the most dreamlike of logic, but suffice it to say that as we open, hapless citizen Monsieur Bèrenger (Dennis Bisto) has stumbled into a gleaming, utopian neighborhood in the heart of Paris. But as the Architect of the neighborhood (Michael Mejia) explains to him, there is a vicious murderer on the loose. After the unnerved Bèrenger arrives home, he encounters his mysterious friend Èdouard (Kevin Webb), who inexplicably owns a briefcase full of relevant murder evidence. In the mad rush across town to bring the briefcase to the police, logic and reality break down pretty quickly, and the play is capped off by a monologue from Bèrenger, which is spoken directly to the invisible “killer” and lasts for a really, really, really, really long time.
Now, there are some wonderful touches here that create the dark, depressing tone the play is going for. The set, from Nicholas James Schwartz, is very basic and consists only of a few platforms and wooden poles – but draped across the poles is creepy, backlit plastic sheeting, as though we are at a construction site. And at various points, the actors interact with the sheeting, and it gets slowly torn down as the play progresses. The lighting (Richard Norward), too, is dark and atmospheric, especially when it interacts with and filters through the plastic sheeting.
The costume design from Rachel M. Sypniewski achieves a similar effect, giving us a clear picture of the bland uniformity that coats our setting. Most everybody is in similar, monochromatic three-piece suits, but subtle differences in color — and level of dishevelment — give each character a clear personality.
There are some incredibly effective stage pictures throughout, including a haunting pre-show involving shambling, trench-coated commuters shuffling around their lifeless city. The trouble is, the director has tried to extend Ionesco’s absurd style to the extra-textual, more movement-based segments of the show. And with so many actors moving around in such a small space, the stage often feels overcrowded and overwhelmed. There are too many bits, going on in too many places, so much so that eventually I had to give up paying attention and let it all wash over my head.
The actors by and large have a good command over Ionesco’s language. Kevin Webb as Èdouard, besides being delightfully creepy, does a particularly good job of taking the repetitive, meaningless prose and thrusting some logic into it with flair, and as a result he elicits most of the show’s genuine laughs.
But while the performances are all around excellent, it often felt like watching an uphill battle against the text, rather than a collaboration with it. Dennis Bisto as Bèrenger, in particular, was hard to watch. Not because he was bad, far from it: he breathed such life and warmth and wit into the words, but then I had to watch Ionesco make him say the same things, over and over and over again, for extremely long stretches. You could see the exhaustion in his body – and having performed a little bit of Ionesco myself, it’s an exhaustion I recognize.
There are some devastating political insights that could have been made here. I very much read the play’s central utopian neighborhood as a metaphor for gentrification, and the murders as the phenomenon’s dark underbelly. The nonsensical and unhelpful police officer characters we see are a timely parallel to the way unchecked inequality and housing discrimination leads to a fascistic police state. This is good stuff, ripe for analysis.
The problem is, Ionesco doesn’t trust the audience to figure it out on our own, so he spends the entire last third of the play having Bèrenger monologue at us, telling us exactly what the play means. And I was so zoned out at that point that I could not tell you a single word of what he says.
Is it possible that the team could have cleared this up? That if they had gotten the right actor, the right director, and had the wind blowing in just the right direction, this production might have cut through to something genuinely relevant and shocking? Who’s to say. I’ve noticed that when I go to see shows, I am inclined to put most of the blame on the script, on account of my incurable case of being a writer. The truth is, theater is so collaborative that it’s often difficult to attribute specific things, good or bad, to specific people.
“The Killer” feels a bit like an unkept promise. There are moments of transcendent, macabre beauty. But largely, the pieces do not add up to a cohesive whole.