Michael Shannon Makes Eugene Ionesco's Disorienting 'The Killer' Memorable

'As Powerful a Performance as I’ve Ever Witnessed'

Shamblng Everyman: Michael Shannon does not play the titular character in Theater For a New Audience’s revival of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Killer” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
Gerry Goodstein
Shamblng Everyman: Michael Shannon does not play the titular character in Theater For a New Audience’s revival of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Killer” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

By Joshua Furst

Published June 05, 2014, issue of June 13, 2014.
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The first task would be to describe the play. In the case of the production of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Killer” currently running at Theatre for a New Audience, this is not so easy to do.

We open on Berenger (Michael Shannon), the shambling existentialist everyman who frequently leads us through Ionesco’s plays, touring a neighborhood called the Radiant City that defies the norms of the cramped, sooty, chaotic metropolis in which he lives. The Radiant City is a place where it never rains. The flowers are always in bloom. The architecture exemplifies the best examples of whichever style it embodies.

It’s a kind of Eden of urban planning and the Architect (Robert Stanton) who shows him around—he’s sometimes described as a civil servant and sometimes as a city planner, and sometimes as a commissioner, though whichever he is at any given moment, he’s clearly the neighborhood’s puppet master—presents it first as a fantastical triumph of human endeavor before admitting that it’s a place of great foreboding and failure after a rock falls out of the sky, nearly knocking Berenger out.

The Radiant City, we learn, is haunted by a killer who uses an old photo to lure people to a lagoon and drown them. This happens three times a day. Everyone knows who the killer is. He wears the same clothes and uses the same tactics each time. But like the European populace during the Holocaust, neither the police nor the residents of the neighborhood have the will or interest to stop him. When the killer strikes again, killing a woman named Dennie (Stephanie Bunch) with whom Berenger had earlier fallen instantly in love, Berenger swears vengeance.

This all plays out on an empty stage. Except for a small table, some periodic smoke effects and that rock falling from the sky, we in the audience are asked to imagine both the beauty and the terror. We’re in a Peter Brooks version of the familiar, slightly plastic Ionesco reality, where characters exist more as types than as people but the world is much as we know it to be, though punctured periodically by random weirdness.

In act two, the aesthetics of act one are turned on their head. Where act one was dignified, chatty and expositional, act two is antic, bawdy and physical. The stage is crowded with actors (an excellent ensemble that includes Kristine Nielsen and Liam Craig), coming and going, bickering and shouting, periodically running into doors. The bustle and chaos of urban life subsumes any sense of order.

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