Cutting Ball Theater’s current staging of mid-20th-century French playwright Eugene Ionesco’s “The Chairs” is probably one of the best theater of the absurd productions to be seen locally — ever.
The almost-entirely-two-character tragic farce, or farcical tragedy, is blessed with numerous advantages: A new translation by artistic director Rob Melrose, who turned some of Ionesco’s nonsensical French wordplay into equally nonsensical English-language wordplay.
Carefully paced direction by Annie Elias, who not only borrows physical comedy tropes from the masters ) Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, et al. — and makes them work beautifully but also draws out the deep melancholy and the human despair in the script without ever losing those comic elements.
Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s subtle sound design that sometimes seems to be transmitted faintly from another world.
And the brilliant, nuanced performances of David Sinaiko and Tamar Cohn in the central roles (as well as Derek Fischer’s clever cameo in a smaller role).
The hauntingly surreal scenario plays out on designer Michael Locher’s fraying living room set with its grimy wallpaper and wide windows looking out into the abyss; the aged couple lives, isolated, on an island.
Sinaiko’s bearded Old Man, in thigh-high wading boots and a fedora, is about to impart his final message, one that will justify his entire, fruitless existence. To that end, he has invited a huge crowd, and, considering himself inarticulate, has hired an orator to deliver the speech.
His wife, whom he affectionately calls “Poopsie” (she calls him “my lamb”) and sometimes thinks of as his Mommy, sighs over her husband’s wasted potential and reassures him, “The universe is waiting for you.” Decked out in a fur coat, purple stockings, a ridiculous little-girl dress and a bandana (excellent costumes by Sarah Roland), Cohn is sublimely focused. Her every grimace, pout and smile conveys oceans of yearning.
As the imaginary audience files in, requiring the Old Lady to stagger about with an endless supply of chairs (one of the most hilarious among many perfectly executed comic scenes), you can almost visualize what each invisible guest looks like, and feel the press of the crowd, the heat, the old couple’s increasing panic — that’s just how good the actors are, and that’s just how well Elias has staged the piece.
Only one quibble: If only Melrose had trimmed some of the more repetitious scenes. At more about 1 1/2 hours, the play feels too long.
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes March 31
Tickets: $10 to $50
Contact: (415) 525-1205, www.cuttingball.com