Theatre for a New Audience
Those who are only familiar with Eugene Ionesco through The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros may be unprepared for the full-on existentialist onslaught of this three-hour play. The work that made his name in this country was absurdist in nature and basically comedic, the laughs underscoring the angst underneath and making it palatable. Aside from the welcome entrance of comic pro Kristine Nielsen at the top of the second act, The Killer is very short on comedy and long on fearfully distended and downright fearful teasing out of the various philosophical maladies of its main character Berenger (Michael Shannon), who appears in several of Ionesco’s other plays.
In the lengthy first act, Berenger is shown around an ideal housing community by an officious architect (Robert Stanton). There are blue skies at all times and many other amenities but also one large problem: a killer keeps pushing residents into a body of water after he gets them to look at “a photo of the colonel.” Berenger goes off on an elaborately self-involved monologue about a time in his life when he felt total happiness, but the architect refuses to pay attention even when Berenger does somersaults to attract his interest. Berenger falls in love at first sight with Dennie (Stephanie Bunch) in a way that underscores the absurdity of all love, then he goes back to talking with the architect. This first scene between these two goes on for probably 45 minutes on a nearly bare stage. Even though Shannon is fully engaged and involved, it starts to feel interminably long before it ends.
Things perk up when Nielsen enters, but only momentarily. Nielsen is a great clown, and she has so many weapons in her comic arsenal that the play starts to take flight, but it gets dragged down again when Shannon plays out another very prolonged scene in his room with a man who may or may not be the title character. Nielsen reappears as Ma Piper, a demagogue who promises to “de-alienate humanity by alienating every individual.” The material veers briefly into leftist territory here, and then it swerves into outright Dostoyevskian debate when Berenger confronts The Killer himself.
We do not see the front of The Killer. We only hear his deliberately irritating and hollow laughter from behind as Berenger tries out anything he can think of to win over this man and defeat his evil. But evil like this cannot be reasoned with. (The play is sometimes translated as The Killer Without Reason or The Killer Without Cause.) Ionesco is wrestling with a Big Topic here without any decoration or embellishment. It’s bald, it’s relentless, and the foregone conclusion in the final scene is exhausting and depressing. Shannon struggles energetically with his hugely demanding role, but this is the kind of heavy-duty theatrical experience that winds up being more punishing than anything else.