Friday, January 2, 2009

Chair

I've been aware of the British playwright, Edward Bond, since I took Oscar Brockett's contemporary theater history class in graduate school. Bond's 1965 play, Saved, famously led to the end of over 200 years of censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's office in England*. Since I've never seen or read any of his plays, I have over the years created for myself a mental picture of what an Edward Bond play would look and sound like. Theater for a New Audience's production of his 2000 play, Chair, dispelled as many of my expectations as it met.

The program tells us that the Time and Place for the play are "City 2077;" there is also one line in the script to support the date. For my part, this information is superfluous: I would have preferred to decide for myself whether the events occur in the past, present or future. That said, I greatly admire director Robert Woodruff's and designer David Zinn's vision of the world 60-odd years hence—it looks and sounds almost exactly like our own but much starker, more oppressive, and starting to unravel (a soldier's uniform in one scene is literally falling apart at the seams).

The majority of the play takes place in the flat of a middle-aged woman, Alice. Alice is hiding a twenty-ish man-child, Billy, who spends his time drawing crayon pictures that cover the upstage wall and querying his protector about the world outside them. The onstage room has two doors—one to the hallway, the other to their second room; a window that taunts the pair with a bright, sun-drenched world beyond their confinement; a table and three chairs. The action begins when Alice peeks out their window and sees a female prisoner under guard who appears to her on the verge of collapse; she is sufficiently moved by this other woman's plight to risk taking one of their chairs down for her. This simple act of kindness sets into motion a series of events that ultimately have disasterous results for Alice and Billy.

The dystopian view of society in Chair is exactly what I had expected from Bond, especially in the authority figures: a government "Officer", beautifully played by Annika Boras, and the soldier who prevents Alice from helping the elderly prisoner. My surprise was that the play was a lot less bellicose than I had anticipated: I think of Bond as the spiritual father of Sarah Kane and expected his work to largely be an attack on an audience's beliefs and morals. In the case of Chair, the play is definitely an intense drama and each progressive scene drives inexorably toward tragedy. Yet Alice's generosity and Billy's innocence gave the play just enough humanity that I was strangely hopeful for the characters, if not actually optimistic about their chances. Much of the credit for this is due to Stephanie Roth Haberle as Alice and Will Rogers as Billy: they reveal a great deal about the long-term relationship of their characters in their extremely focused deliveries of the sparely written scenes.

I've been a fan of Theatre for a New Audience since I saw their 1996 production of Carlo Gozzi's The Green Bird, directed by Julie Taymor. The company has been wildly successful in its mission to create intelligent contemporary productions of classic drama for young people—which encompasses work for high school and college-age students as much as for children. I was a little taken aback when I heard that they'd chosen an Edward Bond play for this season but after having seen the production, I can see that it fits very well with their "reverence for language, spirit of adventure and visual boldness... which supports the work of the writer and actor". Chair is a daring choice and I applaud TFANA for continuing to expand the definition of what theater is appropriate for young audiences.

*For those of you who are interested, John Gay's sequel to The Beggar's Opera, Polly, is also a famous defier of the Lord Chamberlain.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Theatre for a New Audience is not a children's theatre -- it is a classical theatre that has a strong education program, but the Bond play was not seen by schoolchildren (they are seeing Othello this year). The founder says that "New Audience" means an audience wanting to discover -- not children.

Barry Rowell said...

I appreciate the clarification from the poster; upon reading it, I realized that I had not been clear in my post.