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Production holds up skewed mirror to life, humanity

Eugene Ionesco reportedly bristled at being called an absurdist playwright. But an evening spent with The Chairs, one of his most highly regarded works, makes one wonder how he could have argued with the label.

In fact, The Chairs seems to be a 90-minute distillation of all that the theater of the absurd is and should be. It draws us into a world that's a funhouse mirror image of our own, and forces us to reflect, in a fresh way, upon the ultimate futility of our existence and the nonsensical way that human beings behave.

Ionesco seems to be telling us, "This is what's wrong with you." But he does it with the chiding nudge of a trusted friend, not the accusatory jab of a persecutor.

He called the play a "tragic farce." The current co-production by Stageworks and Gorilla Theater tries hard to realize that dichotomy, and nearly succeeds. But in the end it's only the tragic nature of the story and its characters that leaves an impression.

At its heart, Ionesco's play is an allegory _ you could almost call it a fable _ about an old couple at the end of their lives. They spend most of the play welcoming guests for a presentation by "The Orator," who apparently will place the couple's life story into a context that will give it grand meaning and purpose, something that the Old Man and Old Woman are unable to do themselves.

There are some problems. The couples' lives have been essentially empty. The Old Man (charmingly portrayed by Richard Coppinger) proudly and ceremoniously declares that he spent his life as "general factotum," or a person with diverse responsibilities. The Old Woman (Midge Mamatas, who's equally engaging) adores her husband for what he might have been, not for what he is.

More significantly, the "guests" are imaginary, appearing only as empty chairs. By the end, The Old Man and the Old Woman can barely move; the crowd of illusionary friends cramps them into opposite corners of their own home.

For some reason, the comic elements really don't work well here. Despite extremely sympathetic performances, Coppinger and Mamatas manage only a few chuckles as they introduce invisible people to each other and have to sidle past friends that only they can see. It's amusing but it should be hilarious, like a perverse twist on a Marx Brothers routine. Perhaps the mime work isn't quite crisp enough; but for whatever reason, much of the play seems like an overlong premise.

Toward the end, though, the play and the production gradually take a darker turn. Coppinger and Mamatas really come to life as the presence of the couple's delusions becomes overwhelming and as the messianic Orator finally arrives.

One of the most strikingly effective aspects of the production is a gorgeously monochromatic set by R.T. Williams. A skewed roomful of doors and windows all built on bizarre angles, it's like Pee-Wee's playhouse viewed on a black-and-white television.

In the end, despite some slow spots in the road, the production, directed by Anna Brennen, ends up being fairly powerful and extremely thought-provoking. Its impact deepens in the hours and days after you've seen it as you ponder its ideas, which encompass an entire philosophy of life, religion and art.