Wednesday, November 17, 1999

THEATER REVIEW


Uneven 'Chairs' fills hunger for challenging fare

BY JACKIE DEMALINE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If theater were solely about ambition, Stage First Cincinnati would be an unqualified, towering success. This season to date, artistic director Nicholas Korn has re-introduced Cincinnati audiences to Moliere and Euripides, and now he's taking us to the absurdist non-reality of Eugene Ionesco with The Chairs.

        I hadn't quite realized how much I missed “world classics” (the Stage First mission) until Mr. Korn started serving them up in the Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Bank Theater. (And let's not overlook Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, with its current, splendid Waiting for Godot, and Moliere and more Greek waiting in the wings in the new year.)

        In matters of execution, Mr. Korn hasn't been nearly so successful, although The Chairs is easy to recommend despite its problems.

Pulling out chairs
        The Chairs is essentially a two-performer tour de force about an old man (Andy Gaukel, who again demonstrates that he is a local stage treasure) and an old woman (Regina Cerimele-Mechley). We find them waiting in their drawing room to deliver A MESSAGE TO HUMANITY.

        In an indefinable place and time (it was written in immediate post-war Europe) the ancient marrieds have — or have they? — invited friends and dignitaries to hear what he has to say.

        Through the course of about 90 minutes, doorbells ring and chime and a buzzer sounds, ultimately incessantly. They greet and make small talk and pull out chair after chair — dozens in all — to accommodate their guests, who of course are not there at all.

        The Chairs is a dazzling theatrical adventure whose ultimate message is not too far afield from that of Godot, playing a few short downtown blocks away. Where is the meaning to our lives? Is anybody there? Is anyone or anything in control?

        You couldn't do better than to catch both of them, if you can (and both continue only through Sunday).Playing simultaneously, they provide a too-rare opportunity to see great, 20th-century European work.

        There's another reason to see The Chairs. Mr. Gaukel, decades too young for his role, gives another of his compelling, must-see performances. He only goes wrong once, and I'll lay the fault at the feet of his director, Mr. Korn.

        This old man, a janitor of no particular ambition, is carrying around a lot of anger that is very much a part of who he is, no matter how deeply buried. Like a volcano, he erupts every now and again. Mr. Gaukel misses it. It's a needed shading, but even without it, you can't take your eyes off him.

Uneven performances
        Mr. Korn stages the piece delightfully, but there's no getting past the problem with the show's casting. Mr. Gaukel's performance is internal, Ms. Mechley's is completely external, all accomplished vaudeville shtick. She's physically marvelous, but he gives so much you want more from her.

        Their styles and abilities are so mismatched that they unbalance the play. At times you have to remember to tear your eyes from Mr. Gaukel and see what she's doing.

        Ultimately, maybe it's like being served half a meal. The production is somewhat off-kilter, but the messages are clear: It's been years since anybody has attempted an absurdist work here, and Mr. Gaukel's performance deserves to be seen.

        So I'll accept this half-meal and let it stave off an ongoing hunger for provocative, challenging work till the next bite comes along.

        The Chairs, Stage First Cincinnati, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Fifth Third Bank Theater. 241-7469.

       



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