EDWARD BOND SEES THE FUTURE: IT IS US (WOE IS WE)
by Harvey Perr
published December 19, 2008
now playing Off Broadway at the Duke on
through December 28
In Edward Bond’s Chair, a play in six sharply focused and purposely static “pictures,”
we are told that the year in which it takes place is 2077. It is a grim little joke Bond is playing on us. Since we accept a certain amount
of abstraction as the given in so much of our contemporary theater, it doesn’t fool us that the play, in truth, could have taken place
yesterday; the author’s vision of the future is, at heart, a realistic portrait of our own times. One may choose to reject that vision, it
being so stark and so grim; but, because Bond is a poet, it is hard to deny its validity, and, even though it covers some territory that is
not unfamiliar to an audience from other dystopian works, it remains chillingly evocative. And, in the Theatre For A New Audience
production, director Robert Woodruff’s total commitment to the letter and spirit of Bond’s vision succeeds in taking one’s breath away and,
through some of its more startling imagery, even making one’s heart stop every so often.
Alice and Billy share the same living space, but the human connection between them, as it is with most people in these benumbed
times, is mysterious and tenuous. The space they share is grey and unilluminated (except for a sliver of daylight that comes through that
part of a window which is not curtained off) and barren (except for the child’s drawings that festoon a wall). Alice is at the window,
looking down on something happening in the street below. Billy sits at a table drawing. Although Billy is full-grown, there is something in
his sing-song voice and spasmodic movements that suggest he is not physically or emotionally developed and it becomes clear that the
drawings on the wall are his.
Billy becomes curious about what it is that Alice is staring at, but Alice keeps him from the window in fear that he might be
seen, hinting that, if he is seen, he will be taken away. When she reveals that what she sees is a prisoner being abused by a soldier,
Billy suggests that she bring a chair down to provide comfort for the prisoner. Since Alice seems to recognize the prisoner – or, perhaps,
to recognize herself in the person of the prisoner – she agrees. When she leaves, Billy locks the door after her, and wavers, torn between
going to the window and going back to his drawing. End of first picture.
Five pictures follow, each equally vivid, marking the progression from Alice’s encounter with the soldier and the prisoner and
the altercation between them to the revelation of Alice’s relationship to Billy to a visit from an officer inquiring about the altercation
to the bizarre twists that move inexorably towards its fateful and unexpected conclusion. The stage pictures, with their own peculiar sense
of logic, that are created, and the play that contains then, burn into the memory.
Woodruff’s work is powerful - his past work with Bond’s plays very much evident in its fluidity - assisted immeasurably by Mark Barton’s intense lighting, by David Zinn’s oddly effective and
extremely painterly bare-bones set design, and by Michael Attias’ cacophonic sound collages. All the performances are superb: the stillness
of Stephanie Roth Haberle’s Alice is eerily frightening; Joan MacIntosh, without a word (but not without sound), makes a haunted and
haunting impression as the bloodied prisoner. But it is Will Rogers as Billy who makes the strongest impression, a swirling torrent of
twisted emotions and even more twisted gestures, a child uncomprehendingly imprisoned inside a man’s tortured soul.
Chair is not going to
provide holiday cheer for the casual theatergoer at this time of year, but, then again, good theater knows no season. What is reassuring and
even hopeful, however, is the knowledge that Edward Bond has lost none of his ferocity and that, with age, he has, if anything, become even more enraged with the degree of insensitivity that has taken hold of
our doomed culture. He understands how savage lostness and disengagement can be.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com