Ionesco @ Red Orchid

3 Stars out of 4

Director Dado continues her dauntless journey bringing live in person Absurdist Theatre to the people with a beautifully harsh and visceral rendering of one of Eugene Ionesco’s last plays, The Killing Game now on view at the tiny Red Orchid Theatre where the dark intimacy of the space puts you right up into the dying.

The play is an impressionistic bleak collage of the ugly parts of a plague overtaking an entire society. It was a popular offering in the heart of the AIDS crisis. Nowadays, after The Bird Box it seems we need to circle back to The Killing Game to contemplate contagions that destroy everything we have come to treasure about living in community. This show gets us way too close for comfort. The plot is about the fragility of human connection and the ugliness in human nature.  Helen Gary Bishop’s translation of the French script is augmented here with additional content translated by Clare Orban and students from DePaul’s French Department which is a rich treasure trove though perhaps a misstep.  While delving into the original language is important to understand Ionesco, this play could benefit from some cruel pruning: the “everyone is going to die” trope gets a touch belabored: we become uncomfortably comfortable and expectant with seeing the ensemble as various characters in every situation and class expire and this highly visual production needs a bit of blank space around it to hit us in the heart instead of the head.  It’s still must see theater in a week with two school shootings, where violence and destruction are our own plagues.

Ultimately, it is the ensemble here that makes this horrific post-apocalyptic vision resonate and transcend: they are fearless in their fear: they blame, assert privilege, sink in terror, go bravely on, become graphic cannibals, hopelessly help one another and create a claustrophobic doomed universe.  They are also surprisingly funny, though perhaps not funny enough to keep our hope alive. Doug Vickers and Angela Alise create a poignant courageous elderly couple that is heartbreakingly memorable, and the child Katherine Mallen Kupferer is terrifying and reassuring simultaneously in her various characters. Every member of this chameleon cast is a standout as they struggle within the world of the play to make meaning and survive. The ensemble is aided and abetted by the creepy prop and puppet designs of Samantha Rausch and the music and sound design of Elenna Sindler.  Shout out to Red Orchid and it’s mostly female creative and production team. 

As the daily real world news is full of dire predictions and statistics about the end of the world as we know it, and as real life pundits are as useless as the projections with Michael Shannon in a cameo role as spokesperson or subversive, this  lack of salvation in Ionesco’s world view reads as all too true. This is not an evening of theater for the timid, but it is an evening to bear witness to.

The Killing Game is playing through June 23, 2019 at the Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. For tickets and information go to http://www.aredorchidtheatre.org or call 312-943-8722.