THE CHAIRS by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Soheil Parsa, with Michelle Polak, Peter Farbridge and Ed Fielding. Presented by Modern Times Stage Company at Artword (75 Portland). Previews begin Friday (September 21), opens Tuesday (September 25) and runs to October 14, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$20, Sunday pwyc, previews $10. 416-651-5480. Rating: NNNNN
it's ionesco insanity month on Toronto stages.First Soulpepper opened its sharp double bill of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano and The Lesson. Now Modern Times stacks The Chairs against it, giving audiences a chance to sit back and think about the human realities in Ionesco's seemingly absurd world.
Peter Farbridge is caught up in the craziness as he rehearses The Chairs, playing an old man who has a message to impart to humankind. He and his equally ancient wife, who live on a stagnant island, prepare for a reception -- for old friends, the military, newsmen and the emperor himself -- at which an orator will announce the old man's truths.
Farbridge rolls his eyes when I ask him about memorizing an Ionesco script, with its nonsense syllables, disjointed thoughts and repetitions.
"It was easier to learn the role of Hamlet, maybe the longest part in all of Shakespeare," admits Farbridge, who helped co-found Modern Times with director Soheil Parsa. "Those non-sequential lines and duplications are tricky -- it's possible to jump a few pages of text without knowing it. But the more we set the blocking, the easier it is to link movement to words.
"Still," he squirms comically, "it's the first time in my career that I've ever had line problems."
As the play unfolds, an increasing number of chairs litter the stage, but no guests arrive; they may exist only in the old couple's minds. And the orator's message holds its own preposterous element.
"We've got to get more than its simple humour," offers Farbridge, "Ionesco's characters have a tremendous vulnerability.
"Here we're concentrating on the vision of a lost garden, a paradise, where people can feel safe. That's something -- especially these days -- we all reach for."
In fact, this interview involves more than a few uncomfortable silences during which we both think about the devastation in the U.S.
An actor who imbues all his roles with both a tough physicality and galvanic internal energy, Farbridge looks different than he did when he starred in Modern Times' productions of Hamlet and Macbeth.
His hair's longish on top but scraggly on the sides.
He laughs when I mention the transformation.
"Yeah, it looks like I have mange. People keep away from me on the street. When I bought a bottle of Head and Shoulders, the woman behind the counter suggested I needed something more for my condition."
But the look is deliberate, to deal with the fact that director Parsa, who emphasizes the physical aspect of theatre, has intentionally cast young actors who can perform the play's demanding movement.
"In this version, the couple has been on the island for eternity," says Farbridge. "They're an inconceivable age, but we don't want to do a lot of "old' acting, with squeaky voices and makeup. In fact, the man has to change into a four-year-old, a lover and a military man."
The kinetic quality of Parsa's work -- influenced by the Persian tales and theatre he was raised on -- emerged in his first major production, The Conquest. In that play, a Sufi (Farbridge) bests a pair of loutish, violent soldiers with his silence and strength of spirit.
"Soheil is drawn to Ionesco, as he is to folk tale and classics by Shakespeare and Chekhov, by a sense of the metaphysical," adds the bearded redhead. "In all his productions he's concerned with the outside forces that push the characters inside the play."
Linked to this is the central element of storytelling in productions by Modern Times. Narrative points the actors toward solving one of the central difficulties in The Chairs -- helping us "see" the invisible guests in the room.
"Michelle Polak and I have to create everything ourselves, making what's unseen around us -- the metaphysical -- palpable to the audience.
"It's all about games and storytelling."