Review: Killing Game at Red Orchid Is Thrilling, Creative … and Bizarre

Angela Alise and Lance Baker. Photo by Fadeout Foto. Eugene Ionesco’s Killing Game is a thrilling and creative piece of staging and performance at A Red Orchid Theatre. Directed by Dado and featuring 13 formidable actors playing 108 parts, Killing Game takes on issues of health and sanitation, pandemics, and government incompetence. But the play moves so fast as it blends original music, the occasional operatic scene, and a vigorous hat dance that you can almost ignore the serious issues underlying the craziness. Dado’s direction of this 105-minute circus is beautifully orchestrated and enhanced by original music and musical direction by Elenna Sindler. Killing Game is thin on plot, but throughout the production, people die suddenly of the plague, or scourge, no matter how hard they try to protect themselves from contamination. The impotent government does nothing. (Movement director Laurie Roberts gets a special mention for coaching her actors on how to die creatively. Another special credit goes to stilts consultant Scott Dare, who coached Death, a black-cloaked character who lurks and looms throughout.) The cast is uniformly excellent, with special mention warranted for Lance Baker, Doug Vickers and fifth grader Katherine Mallen Kupferer, and beautiful vocal work by Sarah Thompson Johansen. In one scene, a wealthy family, led by paterfamilias Doug Vickers, tries to ensure their safety but they all succumb anyway. Evil spirits can ignore walls and doors, they are warned. Twenty years later, the scourge continues. But when an official declares later that the plague is ending, he notes that people have been dying at the rate of 30,000 a day. (Ionesco doesn’t deal with the question of how a small town would dispose of the piles of corpses.) Doug Vickers, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Maya Lou Hlava. Photo by Fadeout Foto. One of the most carefully staged scenes involves two couples reunited but facing their fears of the plague. Their lines are perfectly matched so that one member of each couple speaks in unison with a member of the other. Scientists in white lab coats swear they believe in life—and they all die. In a sweet scene late in the play, an old man (Angela Alise) and an old woman (Lance Baker), dressed in white, take a stroll, reminiscing about their long life together. She is optimistic; he is a pessimist. But you know how it all ends. Throughout the production, actors carry bent and twisted limbs (that sometimes turn into special props) and make quick costume and character changes. (Costumes by Kotryna Hilko.) The scenic design by Grant Sabin features walls of large gray stones and a two-doored open booth a few steps above the stage floor. Lighting is by Mike Durst and sculpture, props and puppet design by Samantha Rausch. Red Orchid ensemble member Michael Shannon appears as various personas in video clips shown throughout the production. (Media design is by Kyle Hamman and video production by Seth Henrikson.) Having praised the production and its performers, however, I have a caveat. This isn’t a play for everyone. Don’t head over to Wells Street unless you are a fan of theater of the absurd and can tolerate ambiguity, nameless characters and gender- and age-switched casting. Ionesco’s Jeux de Massacre or The Killing Game is one of his later plays, written in 1971. He was a Romanian-French playwright best known for plays such as Rhinoceros, The Bald Soprano and Exit the King. (Trap Door Theatre’s staging of Ionesco’s The Killer opens May 30.) Killing Game was translated from the French by Helen Gary Bishop but additional sections from the Ionesco original were translated by Clara Orban, chair of the DePaul University Department of Modern Languages, and her French language students. In working with the original, they found that an entire scene (the one that will make you think of Sweeney Todd) and most of the profanities were missing from the sanitized U.S. version. They were restored, fortunately. Killing Game continues at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., through June 23. Tickets are $30-$40.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.