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Two Views of "The Killer"
Ionesco's "The Killer" is surreal dark commentary on a public that welcomed Naziism
Written by Eugène Ionesco; directed by Darko Tresnjak.
Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn. (Nevins or Atlantic Avenue stops on subway.)
Opened June 1, 2014; closes June 29, 2014.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 1, 2014.
Michael Shannon as Berenger delighted by the Radiant City. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Ionesco's absurdist satire is a vivid dark commentary on the popular refusal to acknowledge the horrors of the rise of Naziism. And the belief of some Germans that Hitler was ushering in an era of shining, sparkling glory. They could ignore that some people were disappearing, perhaps murdered.
Director Darko Tresnjak's staging is part straight, part bizarre, to make every line resonate in contemporary reality.
Berenger (a too naïve Michael Shannon), Ionesco's Everyman, gets off a wrong bus he rode to the last stop. A civil servant (a properly officious Robert Stanton), tells him he is in the Radiant City which he, the architect, built. He says how wonderful it is.
Berenger declares, "I just knew that in the middle of our gloomy city, right in among all our sad, dark neighborhoods full of mud and dirt, I would find this bright, beautiful area, not rich or poor, with these sunny streets, these avenues streaming with light."
Robert Stanton as the architect. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
We don't see it – the green lawn, the flowers he remarks on. The set is an open space into which we pour our imaginations. Then the architect gets a phone call from his secretary Dennie (Stephanie Bunch) to say she is quitting. She can't take it. When she arrives, Berenger quickly falls in love with her.
He wants to move to the wonderful place. But the architect informs him that the people who live there want to leave. They go out only in groups of ten or fifteen. And even that doesn't necessarily reduce the danger.
There is a murderer stalking the populace. He kills three people a day. Everybody in the neighborhood knows him. He meets people at the bus stop in the guise of a panhandler and latches onto them. When they arrive at the lagoon, he offers to show them the photo of the Colonel. When they look over to see better, he pushes them in.
The architect invites Berenger to a café for some wine. There is a cry, and the next victim is killed. It's someone we know.
Shannon appears a bit too wide-eyed and flakey as Beringer, and the hour of the first act could be cut, condensed. (When the original Paris director wanted to cut the play, Ionesco refused.)
Kristine Nielsen as concierge. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
But in the second act, the symbolism thickens, or darkens. Berenger has a room in a building whose concierge (the delightful Kristine Nielsen) is a quirky, grimacing, philosophizing character. She is cantankerous: "These days, there's just too much education, if you ask me. That's why everything's gone downhill. Even sweepin' the stairs is harder than it used to be."
Berenger discovers that everybody knows about the killings, they have for years. When he returns to his cluttered room, he discovers that his friend Edward (the excellent Paul Sparks), has somehow gained entrance. Edward is a white-faced fellow with a sharp nose, black coat and weird demeanor. Sparks creates a chilling character. Berenger tells Edward about the killings and says, "what amazes me is that you're no longer upset by this. I've always believed that you were a sensitive, humane man."
Michael Shannon as Berenger looking at phots of colonel with Paul Sparks as Edward. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Edward has a large satchel which he clumsily knocks against a table, dumping a sheaf of photos of a colonel on the ground. Berenger notes, "It's an army officer with a handlebar mustache, and epaulets – a colonel with all his decorations." He declares, "The monster's things! These things belong to the monster! It's extraordinary." There are children's watches and a diary and writings of the criminal's philosophy.
He makes no connection to Edward. The people who saw the evidence of Hitler's crimes also discounted them.
Suddenly, everything comes together in a third act that begins powerfully with a rally led by Ma Piper (Nielsen) in a military uniform decked with medals. Flags have the image of a white goose. A large poster of a goose is on the wall. She declares, "You can trust me to drive the chariot of state, which is drawn by my geese. Vote for me. Put your trust in me. My geese and I claim the right to govern you….Good people, you've been deluded. We're going to de-delude you!" Nielsen is a brilliant fascist "Pied Piper," subtle, soothing, then aggressive.
The Nazi rally, Ariel Zuckerman center and Kristine Nielsen from the back. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Her followers wear black arm bands emblazoned with a goose, and they punch the air in salutes. We recall that Edward wears a black armband. The crowd shouts, "Hooray for Ma Piper. Hooray for the geese."
Ma Piper says, "I'll change everything. To change everything we don't need to change anything. We don't change things, we change their names. The old delusions couldn't stand up to psychological and sociological analysis. The new delusions will be unshakable. It will only have misunderstandings. We will perfect the lie."
We're going to de-alienate humanity! To de-alienate humanity, we must alienate each individual – and there will be free soup for everybody!
Kristine Nielsen as Nazi commander. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
She pledges, "We will never persecute anyone, but we will punish….We will not colonize the people but occupy their lands to liberate them! ….Forced labor will be called volunteer work. War will be called peace, and everything will be changed, thanks to me and my geese!"
And suddenly, she declares, "And as for the intellectuals – We'll teach them to do the goose-step! Hooray for the geese!" And, "We only have to take a few steps backward to be at the forefront of history!" So now it's clear. Where are the protestors?
A man, a hero, comes, and says "The hero battles against his time and creates a different time." "Down with Ma Piper" he says.
And Ma Piper declares, "Me and my geese, we'll distribute all public funds! We'll all share equally. I'll take the lion's share for myself and my geese."
He shouts, "And freedom for critics!" Of course, they will beat him up. And the police and military arrive.
Michael Shannon as Berenger and Ryan Quinn as the Killer. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
In the dénouement, Berenger finds himself alone with "the killer," a man in a slouch hat whose face we never see, who he tries to persuade against hatred. "I'm determined not to give up on you," says Berenger. "We can both speak the language of reason, I thought I sensed that, the cerebral kind. You deny love, you suspect charity, they don't compute in your calculations, you think charity's just a big fraud!" Still the naïveté of liberals. And he goes on.
This part of the play again is too long and repetitious. And the killer's repeated sniggering (he has no other lines) gets tiresome.
Forget such quibbles. "The Killer" is not performed frequently. If you care about political theater, you must see it.
Visit Lucy Komisar’s website http://thekomisarscoop.com
By Glenda Frank
"The Killer" by Eugene Ionesco
Translated by Michael Feingold
At Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NYC.
Directed by Darko Tresnjak.
May 17 – June 29, 2014.
Tues.-Sun., 7:30; Sat. and Sun., 2 PM.
Tickets and information at 866-811-4111
Brendan Averett Company. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Berenger, Eugene Ionesco's Everyman, has returned. He's now fumbling through life in "The Killer," another play with that rare combination of comedy, tragedy, and absurdity that Ionesco, along with Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, made famous. The playwright's call to fame is probably is with lighter fare: "The Lesson," about a homicidal professor and his infuriating student; "The Bald Soprano," a spin on the vacuity of contemporary life, in which a man and woman, in idle conversation, discover that they live in the same apartment and may indeed be husband and wife; and "The Chairs," a poignant commentary on old age as a cheerful, elderly couple who live on an island prepare for visitors who never arrive.
Ionesco's comedies bring us big themes in strikingly original formats. Berenger is the lone hold-out in a world overtaken by brute beasts, a stand-in for Nazi collaboration, in "Rhinoceros." In "Exit the King," he grapples-- not well -- with aging and responsibility. In "The Killer" (1958), the most philosophical play in the cycle, Berenger battles senseless evil with his own inimical, inept lack of style and effect. "The Killer" – over three hours long -- does not quite succeed and the third act begs for trims. But Ionesco is an incisive social commentator, Michael Shannon (Oscar nominee for "Revolutionary Road") as Berenger is inspired, and director Darko Tresnjak (Tony nominee for "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder") is a force to be reckoned with.
GordonTashjian and MichaelShannon. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
The first act may have been written in 1959 but it feels contemporary, a gloss on a world of high technology and base instincts. Berenger has wandered into a utopia called the Radiant City, where the air is warm; flowers bloom in winter; high end houses are a steal; and his host, the commissioner himself, welcomes the anti-hero. Berenger is overcome with alternating fits of joy and self-deprecation. His conversation is a stream of consciousness – a hodge- podge of memories, wishes, observations, spoken aloud, complete with physical gestures. At one point, he begins to strip off his layers of winter clothing as he walks. Berenger is the natural man, undisciplined and extraordinarily effusive. Actor Michael Shannon portrays his through erratic speech patterns and bizarre broad gestures, establishing Berenger as part clown, part dreamer.
In contrast, the commissioner is emotionless, all business as he tries to sell the city. ( He is also called the architect and the engineer to emphasize that he is a scientific planner for whom the human does not factor into the equation.) As a contemporary joke and to emphasize his modernity, he is continually answering the 1959 version of a cell phone -- a land line receiver he carries in his pocket. Why would this high government official adopt a hard sell for a poor, shabby naïf? When the commissioner's beautiful secretary (Stephanie Bunch) arrives with her resignation letter, Berenger falls instantly in love and proposes.
Like a true civil servant, the commission argues with her about lifelong job security and the dangers of an open market. The secretary makes it clear that she cannot tolerate the hateful daily grind. Like Berenger, she probably wants something more human. She is murdered by The Killer by the end of the act and, since she never answered his marriage proposal, Berenger mourns her as his dead fiancée.
In a café, Berenger learns that the snake in this paradise is a serial killer, who seems unstoppable. His m.o. is to show his victims a picture of an unspecified colonel, who so mesmerizes them he is able to do what he wants. And so Berenger flees back to winter and his hovel.
MichaelShannonk. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Director Darko Tresnjak transforms Act II into a series of comedy routines, as characters come and go, one funnier than the next. Costume and set designer Suttirat Larlarb places us at the cross section of two urban paths. Our guide to the apartment complex is a Bette Midler, a stand up comedienne (Kristine Nielsen) disguised as the concierge/ cleaning woman. But suddenly, as we enter Berenger's apartment, the comedy turns noir with the presence of the zombie-like Edward (Paul Sparks), waiting, uninvited in Berenger's tiny, littered, ice-cold flat. Edward has a secret in his briefcase: the identity of the killer.
Berenger steals the briefcase and races out to file a police report, but he runs into new forms of mass hypnosis. No longer is the only danger the lone assassin. We are now in a police state and witness the rise of a murderous organization -- in one of the funniest scenes in the play. Under a flag with a goose symbol, Ma Piper (Kristine Nielsen), a charismatic woman, addresses her followers (i.e., goose-steppers), rousing them into a frenzy in which an outsider is killer. Berenger, himself, has a run in with authoritarian soldiers who are trying to clear an area. The ominous lighting, the oversized shadows and cut-out props evoke terror.
The Radiant City recedes further and further from possibility as the lighting (Matthew Richards) grows even darker in Act III. Berenger, anticipating the moment and still totally unprepared, confronts The Killer. The psychological twists in his battle with evil are probably a delight on the page, but they are not theatrical. In the role he performed in 1998 with A Red Orchid Theater, his Chicago-based ensemble company, Michael Shannon could not have been better. He leads the cast of over 20 actors with unflaggingly creative choices and high energy. Impressive acting by all. This is a rare production -- and the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Theatre for a New Audience's impressive new home, right around the corner from BAM, is worth a visit.
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