The Architect (a nattily dressed Michael Mejia) welcomes a slightly frazzled Bèrenger (Dennis Bisto) for a tour of the Radiant City. It’s a paradise where everything is quiet, sunny, green, lush and fragrantly floral. Bèrenger praises the Architect’s work effusively, but soon realizes that even though this district may seem arcadian compared to his own dark, damp neighborhood, the evil from other districts invades the utopia. A destructive spirit, in the form of a relentless killer, is on the prowl.
That’s how Eugene Ionesco’s The Killer, directed by Mike Steele with choreography by Jesse Hoisington, opens at Trap Door Theatre. Actually, in typical Trap fashion, the play opens before it opens. When the house opens and you take your seat to read the program, the stage is not empty. Three characters wearing long dark overcoats and fedoras and carrying attaché cases pace, stroll, occasionally pound a wall, and sit on the steps leading to the raised stage platform. In choreographed movements, they open their cases and take out a portrait of the colonel, a floral bouquet or a jar of sweets. Sometimes all three take out the identical portrait of the colonel. Then they close their cases, get up and pace again. The snap-snap-snap of the cases will punctuate the play.
Now Dany, the Architect’s secretary (Abby Blankenship), arrives with her typewriter. She’s distraught and demands to be freed of her job. During her conversation with the Architect, Bèrenger proposes marriage to her, describes the sweet cottage where they could live in the Radiant City, and she pounds aggressively on her typewriter. Ionesco is a master of miscommunication.
Dany never says yes to Bèrenger’s proposal but leaves her job and the Radiant City; she soon is a victim of the killer, since she’s no longer protected by being part of the civil service. Bèrenger begins to think the city of light is only a false front, a Potemkin village that hides the real evil of the authoritarian city. Sitting in a café outside the Radiant City, Bèrenger and the Architect discuss the killer’s approach: distracting his victims with the picture of the colonel, then grabbing them and drowning them in a lagoon.
Bèrenger meets his sickly friend Edouard (a satisfyingly creepy performance by Kevin Webb), who may know something about the killer. (Or not. In any case, no one seems to be trying to stop the killer.) Edouard’s attaché case, placed on what appears to be a table shrouded in plastic sheeting, opens to Mother Peep (a comic and garishly made up Holly Cerney) delivering a political speech.
Another set piece is an extended chilling ballet in which seven characters in long overcoats and fedoras prance, march, stalk and prowl the stage. The Killer fulfills Ionesco’s goal of keeping us perplexed and possibly even annoyed at his misdirection.
In the final scene, Bèrenger, still seeking justice in this nightmare world, pleads with the killer to accept his guilt or at least to explain why he keeps killing. Bèrenger’s 15-minute monologue is angry, sad and powerfully delivered by Bisto. His stunning performance throughout as a frustrated, emotional man who cares deeply is climaxed by this dynamic closing scene.
The set design is by Nicholas Schwartz with lighting by Richard Norwood and sound design by Matt Test and Sam Clapp. Rachel Sypniewski designed costumes and makeup is by Zsofia Otvos. One note about props: Ionesco forecasted the mobile phone. The Architect carries a phone in his chest pocket–it’s a corded earphone piece from an old-style candlestick phone.
The Killer (1958) was Ionesco’s first play of the Bèrenger series, which deals with the life of Bèrenger, a sort of ineffectual everyman. The storylines of the four plays are not related but in each one, Bèrenger is buffeted by the vicissitudes of life. The other Bèrenger plays are Rhinoceros (1959), Exit the King (1962) and A Stroll in the Air (1963).
The Killer continues at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland, through July 6. Running time is 105 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursday-Friday and $25 on Saturday, with two-for-one tickets on Thursday.
Critic’s comment: I’m giving this production 2.5 stars because the storyline is a bit confusing and hard to follow, possibly because Trap Door’s version is cut significantly from the original, which can run three hours. (I’m not suggesting that three hours of The Killer seems like a good idea.) However, the staging, choreography and performances are very good. You should be able to tell from my review whether this is the sort of play that you would enjoy. Caveat emptor, as they say.