Review: VICTIMS OF DUTY at A Red Orchid Theatre

Review: VICTIMS OF DUTY at A Red Orchid Theatre

Pictured: The Cast of VICTIMS OF DUTY. Photo by fadeout foto.

By Elizabeth Ellis

“When Rhinoceros was produced in Germany, it had fifty curtain calls. The next day the papers wrote, ‘Ionesco shows us how we became Nazis.’ But in Moscow, they wanted me to rewrite it and make sure that it dealt with Nazism and not with their kind of totalitarianism.” ~ Eugène Ionesco

French-Romanian absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote VICTIMS OF DUTY less than 10 years after the end of World War II. The shadows of authoritarian regimes in Europe still fell long over Europe, and Ionesco himself carried fear and trauma, and probably PTSD. Writing the semi-autobiographical VICTIMS OF DUTY was an exercise in catharsis for him, and subsequently, the play is one of his most personally relatable, as well as one of his favorites. A RED ORCHID first mounted this play 23 years ago, with actors Guy Van Swearingen and Michael Shannon and director Shira Piven returning to this production. As Piven observes in the program notes, “When we did it then, its meanings were deep for us, very personal and somewhat abstract. Now there is also a social/political resonance that we can’t escape, as much as might want to.” She is absolutely right: this VICTIMS OF DUTY speaks to the casually fascist attitudes emerging all over our country, and this affecting and oddly touching production, with outstanding performances all around, acts as both a reminder of the past and a warning of what could so easily happen again.

A couple, Choubert (the fabulous and multi-layered Guy Van Swearingen) and Madeleine (the seamlessly flexible Karen Aldridge, who moves from sexy to earnest to snarky) live in a simple bourgeois life. While sitting around their bathtub, he reads his newspaper, pasted together from different sources, and she knits. They discuss mundane topics such as philosophy, dog poop on the sidewalk, and government notifications to cultivate detachment. The Detective (the outstanding Michael Shannon, who glides so easily between timid and terrifying and everywhere in between) arrives at their door, looking for a bad guy named Mallot. Since the Detective is at first so charming and mild-mannered, Choubert and Madeleine gladly offer to help him locate Mallot. What follows is a frightening path of quizzes and mental gymnastics, as Choubert delves deep into his memory, trying fruitlessly to remember his relationship with Mallot. Eventually, the Detective manages to convince Choubert that Choubert is Mallot’s ally. Once Choubert comes back to the present, the Detective produces a stale baguette and forces Choubert to eat it, to “plug the holes in his memory.” Two more characters emerge: Mademoiselle (the nearly mute but intense Mierka Gierten) and poet Nicholas d’Eu (the strange and wonderful Rich Cotovsky). d’Eu brings a moment of Ionesco’s very funny and very French self-reference: “Everyone ought to write,” Nicholas declares to the Detective. He replies “No point. We’ve got Ionesco and Ionesco, that’s enough!” A confrontation between d’Eu and the Detective becomes violent, and d’Eu, Choubert and Madeleine end up together, forcing each other to eat the bread.

Piven generously allows her actors to revel in the text and the absurd circumstances without playing them too forcefully, which makes the play far more relatable for the audience. She emphasizes the theme of bread and water, possibly signifying what we can expect in a prison, as the play progresses. When first entering the A Red Orchid space, you hear the slow drip-drip-drip of water, which hopefully prepares you for the significance of water in the entire production. Water, water, is everywhere: in the center stage bathtub, in a separate pool, and the actors immerse themselves and each other repeatedly. Danila Korogodsky’s and Samantha Rausch’s spare yet beautiful black, red, and white set fits the less-than-100-seat venue well. On the back wall is Zwei Köpfe (“Two Heads”) a painting done by Ionesco himself. A series of projections occur during the performance, from a peaceful demonstration of chi gung to a disturbing scene of gallivanting Hitler youth to a photo of Josef Stalin in Russia.

The 1995 VICTIMS OF DUTY occurred during a happier time in the US, but this superb production is a cautionary tale perfectly timed for the current political climate. As much as we want to think “oh, that could never happen again and never happen HERE,” Ionesco reminds us that, yes, it can. Like the water that cascades throughout the performance, human nature can ebb and flow and take the shape of its container, no matter how monstrous and traitorous that container may be.

VICTIMS OF DUTY runs through August 5th. For more information visit

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.