Theater for a New Audience closes its inaugural season in its new home at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn with an outstanding production of Eugène Ionesco’s 1957 dark comedy, The Killer. Presented here in a new translation by Michael Feingold, The Killer follows Berenger, Ionesco’s multi-play Everyman, from his discovery of a utopian “radiant city,” a place that returns to him a long-lost feeling of being truly alive, through the consequences of his further discovery that his utopia boasts a resident murderer. When a young woman named Dennie, with whom Berenger immediately falls in love, makes herself vulnerable to the murderer by leaving the employ of the city, Berenger’s quest for justice leads him into encounters with a sickly friend who may or may not be involved, attendees at a political rally, and the police who violently suppress them, culminating in an extended face-to-shadowy-face with the titular antagonist.
The execution of that final face-off rests largely on the shoulders of Michael Shannon, best known for Boardwalk Empire and Man of Steel roles, as Berenger. Berenger does all of the talking during this extended confrontation, and Shannon holds the audience’s attention riveted, ensuring that what is basically an extended philosophical attempt to untangle the nature of evil feel less like an existentialist disquisition and more like a journey. In the onus this play places on a single actor to hold the stage, The Killer invites comparison to Brecht’s Mother Courage, (performed similarly impressively by Meryl Streep several years ago as part of NYC’s Shakespeare in the Park), and Shannon more than meets the challenge. His Berenger is equal parts optimism and cynicism, clueless and insightful. In an interview reprinted in the program, Shannon recalls having first performed this role sixteen years ago in Chicago, which leads one to wonder how these performances would look side by side, how age would inflect the slide towards the despair of meaninglessness that Berenger experiences.
The rest of the cast boasts similarly strong performances. The first third of the play consists primarily of Berenger and Robert Stanton’s Architect, responsible for the “radiant city,” onstage together, the polite-civil-servant exterior of the latter concealing an underlying anger much as his jacket pocket conceals the rotary telephone handset that links himself constantly to his office. The middle third similarly focuses on Berenger and his friend Edward, embodied by Paul Sparks as pasty and sweaty from his illness, shifty and weaselly perhaps from a more than physical corruption. As Berenger moves farther from his utopian dream, more characters invade the stage space, and they make solid appearances across the board (notably Kristine Neilsen doubling as the concierge and Ma Piper, the incoherent and possibly fascistic revolutionary leader,and Liam Craig as the Bum, the First Man, and the Drunk). Moments occur when the theater space itself is used to good effect, getting Berenger very close to the audience in the first act as he sees in them the flora and sky of the radiant city, and rally flyers, later to blanket the stage from the upper levels, being handed out to the audience during the second intermission.
Written over half a century ago, Ionesco’s play evokes uncanny and sometimes uncomfortable parallels with current events. It is impossible not to think of post-UCSB debates over cultural misogyny during Berenger’s discussions of his infatuation with Dennie (Stephanie Brunch) and interrogation of the killer’s motives, and Ma Piper’s rally scene, while deploying a perhaps overly heavy-handed goose-stepping pun, wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of The Daily Show. Dark, funny, and haunting, TfaNA’s The Killer is absurdism for the 21st century. - Dr. Leah Richards & John Ziegler
(Photo courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)
Ms. Richards is an English professor in NYC, spends her free time raising three cats, and smashing the patriarch.
When not writing reviews, Mr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.