A brilliant duo make this an absurdist’s treasure
|Organic Theater Company presents|
Review by Clint May
Somewhere else in the universe of Slawomir Mrozek’s The Emigrants, perhaps in the basement room adjacent to this one, Ben and Gus await their orders. In the fields outside the city, Estragon and Vladimir can never stop waiting.
It’s in the waiting that interesting things so often happen.
Great absurdist fiction has a way of pulling you into a world that has just enough elements of your own to seem familiar, then flipping it around on you to expose your hidden philosophies and their inherent contradictions.
Like The Dumb Waiter, The Emigrants (written a few decades later), opens with a man talking about nothing of great import while another man half-listens from behind a newspaper. Though it’s never named in the production, we know the place is Paris and these men are from Poland (geography is not really of consequence in the absurd). They never refer to each other by name, and are listed only as AA (Josh Anderson) and XX (Joel Stanley Huff). In a stark basement room on New Year’s Eve, these two exiles will stare into the heart of darkness as their respective worldviews are upended by the other. Both are waiting, for a muse, for a homecoming, for an unnameable something.
How these men came to live together in the lowest room of this tenement housing is left unknown (probably chance and necessity). It appears to have been several years ago, and this odd-couple has entered a domestic pattern. AA, the college-educated dreamer, somehow makes the rent payments despite rarely leaving the apartment, while the dull cow of a man XX comes and goes to his backbreaking menial labor. What at first seem easy stereotypes of a bourgeois intellectual and a proletariat worker slowly evolves into an exploration on the nature of slavery. Thanks largely in part to the chemistry of Anderson and Huff, there’s a deep humanist undercurrent to their desperation. An early scene involving whether or not to eat a can of dog food based on the semantic clues of the can is a fascinating deconstruction of their archetypes. They have no timekeeper to tell them when midnight arrives, but will know by the sound of champagne being uncorked overhead (what an illustrative vignette). In the unmeasured hours, the pair become more and more entangled in a push and pull of philosophies that makes them antagonistic even as their codependency is revealed.
What begins as absurdity/surreality becomes a touch more real in the second act, as AA’s political asylum and XX’s impossible dream of a better life ground them in a more recognizably pathetic world. Each confronted with the bare absurdity of their mutual propositions will react in ways that mirror those in Organic Theater’s joint production of Caligula. If that concerns the breakdown in the face of ultimate freedom, Emigrants approaches from the point of view of a “slave.” Though not technically enslaved, they are both subordinates: AA to his ability to see all sides and XX to his greed and both to the politics of the land they left. Even when they try to usurp their bonds, they are ultimately slaves to a lack of free will (though AA will comment that it exists, he later contradicts himself by telling XX that he cannot do otherwise than he has because to behave differently would mean to be a different person).
Both Anderson and Huff turn in brilliant performances, but it’s Huff that truly stands out. His mastery of his physical expression of buried emotion turns his dimwit slowly and inexorably into a sympathetic being. If they ever made a stage production of “A Confederacy of Dunces”, he’d sweep the Jeff Awards as Ignatius. Anderson has the slightly easier job of already being an “evolved” mind trying to coax humanity from what he (incorrectly) sees as only a dull ox, but his growing awareness of intellect being little better than idiocy have their own poignancy. If you’ve previously read my review of Caligula, you already know I found the craft in this execution far superior, able to lead farther into the depths of absurdity while simultaneously keeping us in touch with our humanity.
Many allusions to Caligula become apparent as the show goes on, particularly a reference to another famously insane Emperor Nero, whom AA posits burned Rome to the ground out of the boredom of being the only free man. Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (part of the cycle of works on the absurd that include Caligula), figures heavily here to comment on the nobility of slavery, of drudge work, and the lower classes in general. Mrozek imbues his characters with a spirit of rebellion in the face of absurdity, the efficacy of which are intentionally ambiguous.
Taken as a set, these two shows make an object lesson in wrong responses to an unfeeling universe. It’s all the more heartbreaking that I can’t wholly recommend one of them, but gratefully, The Emigrants stands alone as a compelling production.
The Emigrants continues through July 5th at Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map), running in rotating rep with “Caligula”. Check schedule for performance days/times. Tickets are $19, and are available by phone (773-404-7336) or online through GreenhouseTheater.org (half-price tickets available at Goldstar.com). More information at OrganicTheater.info. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)
behind the scenes
Alexander Gelman (director), Ryan Massie (assistant director)