Last produced off-Broadway in 1960, Eugène Ionesco's dark, absurdist comedy The Killer has returned to New York in a definitive production at Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in Brooklyn. Darko Tresnjak, the Tony-nominated director of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, helms the play, newly translated from the French by Michael Feingold. This extraordinary production, with a top-notch cast led by Michael Shannon, has set the standard for any future staging.
Ionesco's plays are generally considered prime examples of the Theater of the Absurd — a genre that examines themes of human isolation, meaninglessness, and despair by placing quirky characters in bizarre, often comical situations. The uproariously funny The Killer falls squarely into that tradition, focusing on Ionesco's own preoccupations with mindless conformity, self-delusion, and death, themes that resonate strongly throughout The Killer.
The production opens on a black, smoky, cavernous stage that gradually grows brighter with the appearance of Berenger (Shannon), a world-weary everyman who has lost the "inner fire" he felt in his youth. A nameless Architect (Robert Stanton) guides him through a "radiant city" located surprisingly close to Berenger's urban hovel in a neighboring city. All seems perfect in this utopian paradise: the streets are clean, the homes are well constructed, and the skies are perpetually cloudless.
Berenger dreams of living in this paradise, but his hopes are dashed when he learns that a killer has been bumping off the city's denizens left and right. This mysterious murderer is so good at avoiding detection that the authorities have given up all hope of catching him. Berenger, however, stirs himself into action when the woman he wants to marry, Dennie (Stephanie Bunch), is killed. Vowing to avenge her death, he enlists the unreliable help of his sickly and mysterious acquaintance Edward (a hilarious Paul Sparks) on an absurd quest to find the killer in a city overtaken by totalitarian uprisings, mindless violence, and police corruption.
This might sound like bleak stuff (and it is), but Tresnjak has extracted every bit of the play's sidesplitting humor. Berenger's lengthy dialogue with the Architect in Act 1 is punctuated by Shannon's joyous antics, including a couple of somersaults, and Kristine Nielsen, ushering in the uproariously funny second act, brings the house down as Berenger's loudmouthed landlady, the Concierge, and later as the totalitarian dictator Ma Piper. Smaller but no less hysterical scenes abound, as when Shannon and Sparks both attempt to close an overstuffed briefcase, and when two old men (played by Noble Shropshire and Gregor Paslawsky) walk briefly across the stage and reminisce about glory days.
Shannon gives a tour-de-force performance. Berenger's psychological turmoil, as he aimlessly makes his way through a city gone mad, is constantly present on his face, and Shannon seems always in motion, even when standing still. In the final scene in particular, he deftly portrays Berenger crumbling under the weight of his own hopelessly futile words and arguments.
But the acting talent is everywhere onstage. The taller-than-tall Brendan Averett, for example, is perfectly cast as the blasé Waiter and ferocious First Policeman. In both roles, his facial expressions and posture create immediately recognizable stereotypes. And Ryan Quinn deserves special mention for his ability to produce the chillingly precise maniacal laugh of the title role.
Suttirat Larlarb's inspired set and evocative costumes suggest 1940s noir. From the menacingly lit empty stage of the play's opening to Berenger's cluttered, claustrophobic room to the army trucks of the third act, she has created a dystopian vision that seems uncomfortably familiar. Matthew Richards' lighting is practically a character itself, shifting from playful to direful to terrifying, particularly in the police crackdown scene. Jane Shaw's sound design and music are also ingeniously utilized to contribute not only to the play's raucous humor but also to its almost palpable sense of dread.
About 55 years after its first production, The Killer resonates with prescient moments, and despite — or perhaps because of — its absurd situations and characters, The Killer feels not only relevant but necessary. Theatre for a New Audience has given us a rare opportunity to see Ionesco's classic staged in an important, solid, long-overdue production. One can only imagine that its author would have approved.