A scene from Theodora Skipitares' The Chairs at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre.
A scene from Theodora Skipitares' The Chairs at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre.
(© Richard Termine)

An old woman and an old man frantically assemble chairs for an important speech. All of the guests are invisible dignitaries and the orator is mute. This is the premise of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play The Chairs, which first premiered in 1952. Theodora Skipitares put her own twist on this bleak concept by making the guests the important speakers. This updated version of The Chairs, now playing at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, offers plenty of food for thought and a far more uplifting conclusion than the original.

A giant puppet head shuffles onstage. This is the old woman (embodied by Britt Moseley, voiced by Judith Malina). She's preparing a party for several important guests. When the first guest arrives, it appears that the old woman is simply addressing an empty chair, just like in Ionesco's play. However, the chair comes alive and begins reading Malala Yousafzai's address to the United Nations. Twenty-one other guests appear, some famous (Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela) and some not (Flaco, an auto mechanic from Willets Point).

Like the people they're meant to depict, every chair is beautiful and unique. Skipitares has identified a defining trait for each of her subjects and accentuated that in the design: hidden compartments for ex-CIA spy Valerie Plame, a head constantly shaking with rage for rabble-rouser Mario Savio, a gilded puppet theater/cage for Pussy Riot. Ionesco himself makes an appearance as a red plastic chair covered in many tiny chairs. Quite unexpectedly, these animated seats exude humanity.

Puppeteers Jane Catherine Shaw, Marit Sirgmets, and Jessica Smith carefully manipulate the chairs, endowing them with a natural physicality. Jan Leslie Harding and Eugene Nesmith sit on the edge of the stage and give voice to the characters. Harding is especially good at capturing the dialects and speaking patterns of her subjects. Alice Tolan-Mee elegantly underscores the speakers from the opposite side of the stage, performing original music she wrote with Sxip Shirey.

One of the problems with absurdist theater is that within the first five minutes you can usually discern the underlying message (your life is inherently meaningless). This leaves the remaining play completely at the mercy of the actors. If their performances are not compelling, the show becomes dull really quickly. Even if the performances weren't entertaining (and they are), Skipitares' Chairs wouldn't have this problem. Each of the speakers has something new and interesting to add to the global discussion.

My personal favorite was Sister Wendy, the British nun who hosted a series of documentaries on art history for the BBC. She gives a very intelligent critique of Andres Serrano's controversial photograph "Piss Christ" that is shockingly evenhanded coming from a Catholic nun. Her puppet is presented as a sort of slide show on incendiary art. By putting all of these diverse ideas and voices onstage, Skipitares paints a vivid tapestry of humanity. In Donald Eastman's scenic design, all of the chairs hang over the stage, suspended in the air and in our thoughts.

Her response to Ionesco is crystal clear and quite convincing: How can our lives be inherently meaningless when our emotional and intellectual reactions to these people and their ideas are so real? Doubtless, theatergoers will already have preconceived notions of many of the subjects presented in The Chairs. By showcasing them in such a unique way, Skipitares gives us the opportunity to reevaluate our ideas by confronting us with their words. This is a powerful and beautifully designed theatrical experience.