The Killer, directed by Tony-winner (for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) Darko Tresnjak and starring Michael Shannon as Berenger, is a daring production currently at Theatre for a New Audience in a limited run ending June 29. Ionesco’s work is typical Theater of the Absurd: at times disjointed, humorous, searing, intentionally opaque. If you enjoy clear plot streams and solid, accessible, linear play construction, you will have to focus your intellectual powers to follow this cleverly styled production, which is not for the ancillary playgoer out for light, fluffy entertainment.
As always Ionesco writes to make you think, to make you consider your own world view and the condition of the culture and the flawed individuals who populate it. If you enjoy this exercise, you will appreciate how Tresnjak fashions his conceptualization of the play’s timeless themes about human frailty and alienation, and you will experience a refreshing take on Ionesco’s social criticism of groupthink and cultural vapidity.
In The Killer, newly translated by Michael Feingold, Ionesco presents a cacophonous and relativistic moral universe. Within its unpredictable scenarios, the playwright reveals that few individuals proactively take a stand against malevolent injustice. Most, out of fear, hopelessness, and conformity, resign themselves to a life of distracted oblivion, avoiding consideration of how their action and inaction contribute to a harmful social structure.
Michael Shannon plays protagonist Berenger, the complex, stressed, determined, symbolic everyman. The Architect (a logical and moderate-seeming Robert Stanton) is showing him the Radiant City he has helped to plan and whose construction he has overseen. It is a place that symbolizes perfection, peace and unity. Touring this self-contained community, Berenger is ebullient. He understands that the city, the antithesis of his own, offers an exceptional quality of life.
The place is a “dream come true” in the most minute details: vibrant colors and healthy grass, trees, flowers; the refracted light and the freshness of the air; architectural appointments and beautiful environs; and pristine climate and ambiance. The Radiant City embodies the magnificent promise that Berenger anticipates will help him fulfill all the purposes of his life when he moves there. He believes that residing in this city he will be able to achieve the joy, prosperity and wholeness he has been yearning for his entire life.
In the midst of their sojourn walking the streets, Berenger and Stanton meet a woman who in loveliness is like Berenger’s own personal muse. He falls in love at first sight and imagines they are to be engaged. This is another epiphany and he is ecstatic that his life is coming together: With her he can enjoy that loving relationship which will help him complete the harmonious lifestyle he will obtain in the Radiant City.
To this point we have indulged in Berenger’s excitement, allowed ourselves to be swept up into his dream fulfillment, little suspecting there will be a grave letdown intimated by the play’s title. Shannon deserves credit for his intense and believable portrayal of Berenger; we willingly identify with his innocent, unaffected desire to obtain this paradise within his reach. Who has not yearned to find a “radiant city” that answers all one’s desires? Who has not envisioned someone to love and share happiness and pleasure, while enjoying a superior quality of life?
It is at this juncture of the build-up that Ionesco presents a fly in the ointment: There is a killer in paradise. Berenger and the Architect see, off in the distance, a shadowy perpetrator drowning someone in a pool. In horror Berenger realizes that the victim is his imagined fiancee, overcome as The Architect matter-of-factly explains that the populace has been fleeing the Radiant City because of a rampaging destroyer. Authorities lack the will or competence to apprehend him, so the murderer randomly strikes with impunity whenever, wherever, whomever.
Hoping to avenge his beloved, Berenger vows in his heart to help the police apprehend the annihilator and restore peace and unity. The juxtaposition of the Radiant City as paradise and the dark blot upon it is a great irony not lost upon us; this is a familiar scenario in our own national and global communities, in which a killer is at large and police seem unable to stop him. Thanks to Tresnjak, Shannon and the ensemble, we are shocked by this “inconvenient” fact, and the realization both confuses and unsettles.
By the end of Act One, Ionesco has presented his broad themes and conflicts. Mankind can create paradise, but there will always be a killer, and to achieve peace and the beauty of life, the killer must be dealt with. Berenger would be the hero who divines the murderer’s identity and assists in stopping him. The problem Ionesco presents is positing how the social structure will deal with the killer after Berenger catches him. Will the authorities discover why he kills, so as to rehabilitate and reform him so he kills no more? Do they kill the killer (an equally malevolent act), declaring such a killing justice? The philosophical questions which Ionesco investigates in the remaining acts create a web as diabolical and absurd as a killer destroying human life for no “good” or logical reason.
To ease our distress in facing the conundrums created by these Act One events, Ionesco “sends in the clowns” in Act Two. These important absurdist characters are unwitting accomplices of the killer because they remain unengaged, in a mindless and hopeless oblivion, negotiating their miserable lives to get to the next day. They are the perfect foils for assiduous and determined everyman Berenger because unlike him, they appear to be without purpose, advocacy, or interest in the horrific ongoing events that terrorize their society.
Yet, as Ionesco reveals these realistic individuals, they do serve a purpose however hapless: they entertain us through Berenger’s (and our) dilemma about finding “the killer” and resolving what to do with him once he is found. These humorous personalities are the Concierge (Kristine Nielsen performs her with wonderful comedic brilliance), and Berenger’s friend Edward (a very funny Paul Sparks whose costume is similar to the black spy in Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy”). At first we question whether Edward may be the killer because of his furtive movements; however, it is later revealed he unwittingly has managed to discover clues to the identity of the murderer, clues which eventually lead Berenger to confront the murderer and the “spirit of malevolence” he embodies.
There is also Ma Piper (Kristine Nielsen is equally brilliant, humorous and frightening in this role). Ma Piper is a sardonic and very funny caricature of the “savior politician.” Ionesco shows Piper rallying a political action group to will elect her; with their support she promises to solve all the world’s ills. We note that the current power elite has been ineffective in confronting the society’s present miseries.
Ma Piper’s exhortations to “save and restore” are particularly acute; Ionesco has her quote Orwellian platitudes of doublespeak which in their phrasing are nonsensically logical. Her demeanor, encouragement of groupthink, and simplistic platform represent Ionesco’s ridicule of fascism, communism, imperialism, capitalism and socialism. In delineating her as a symbolic archetype, Ionesco fillets the incompetence and inability of political parties and philosophical “isms” to solve the deepest issues at the core of mankind/womankind’s true terror, the impulse to kill and destroy. Ionesco intimates through the Ma Piper character how politicians, in their professed attempt to deal with social issues, invariably manifest the worst of humankind’s annihilating impulses. They do this on a mammoth scale with the imprimatur of the unmindful society they have brainwashed and bent to their will.
Act Three concludes the threads and conflicts Ionesco has presented as Berenger finds and stands against the killer. The play’s resolution is akin to the circular tropes of Theater of the Absurd; in dealing with the killer, Berenger must deal with his own impulses and work through how to determine a just recompense and redemption. Can he succeed? This is left to the individual audience members to interpret and decide.