Eugene Ionesco’s “Victims of Duty” turns on a tongue-in-cheek bit of dramatic criticism. The French-Romanian absurdist opens the work on a scene of mildly off-kilter, middle-class domesticity between Choubert (reliable fireplug Guy van Swearingen) and his wife Madeleine (the exquisite Karen Aldridge). As she darns socks and he reads the news (“nothing ever happens,” he reports), the two come to a discussion of the theater.
‘Victims of Duty’
When: Through August 5
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells
Run time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
“All the plays that have ever been written, from Ancient Greece to the present day, have never really been anything but thrillers,” Choubert avers. “Drama’s always been realistic and there’s always been a detective about. Every play’s an investigation brought to a successful conclusion. There’s a riddle, and it’s solved in the final scene.”
A Red Orchid Theatre’s production, staged by Shira Piven, is already giving us clues that not everything is so straightforward in this household. Like when the artwork on the wall — “Zwei Köpfe,” a painting by Ionesco himself — is suddenly replaced by grainy video of men performing tai chi. Or, for instance, the half-filled clawfoot bathtub that sits center stage between Madeleine and Choubert.
How much Ionesco himself aligned with his protagonist’s proclamation is up for debate. To stake a hard claim that drama’s always been realistic, Choubert would have to have missed Ionesco’s breakthrough with “The Bald Soprano” a few years prior to this 1953 piece, for starters. But as if to fulfill this “Law & Order” theory of the theater — if only so he can proceed to upend it — Ionesco has a detective show up at the door moments later, jumpstarting the action (if you can call it that) of this supreme riddle of a play.
Did I mention the detective is played by Michael Shannon?
It’s likely Shannon’s elevated profile over the last decade — five seasons on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” two Oscar nominations for “Revolutionary Road” and “Nocturnal Animals,” one big superhero movie, countless admiring magazine profiles — that have made tickets so hard to get for this very short run (four weeks only) in A Red Orchid’s 80-seat theater in Old Town.
But Shannon has been making theater with his fellow ensemble members at A Red Orchid for 25 years now. Indeed, he’s made this play with them before. Shannon, Van Swearingen and Piven, along with at least some of the design team, first mounted “Victims of Duty” on this stage in 1995. It’s hard to imagine it sold out every night back then.
Shannon’s unnamed detective claims to be in pursuit of the previous tenant of Choubert’s flat, a man named Mallot. As soon as Choubert allows that he might have met Mallot once, the authoritarian detective, joined by Madeleine, orders Choubert to trudge deep into the “mud” of his subconscious.
And thanks to Danila Korogodsky’s scenic design, which includes both the aforementioned bathtub and a shallow pool that might represent the chasm of memory into which Choubert descends, that mud is very, very wet.
All three actors, and much of the stage, are soon soaked. If the water seems a bit of a visual non sequitur, an added layer of because-we-can absurdism, well, who’s to say what you can’t do in Ionesco? “The theater of my dreams would be irrationalist,” says another of the characters, a poet who arrives in the play’s final third with more ideas about the state of drama. (He’s played by Off-Loop treasure Richard Cotovsky; Mierka Girten rounds out the cast as another late arrival, a near-silent woman whose presence goes amusingly, bizarrely unquestioned.)
The extra liquid, though surely a challenge for the costume crew, does add some unexpected touches. During one passage, when Shannon is delivering a cosmic-tinged speech as Choubert’s father (just go with it) with his whole considerable noggin wrapped in a black shawl, looking rather like a Magritte painting, Van Swearingen’s now childlike Choubert sits at his knee, while the dripping of his sopping-wet sportcoat registers on the stage floor like a ticking stopwatch, unexpectedly ratcheting up the tension.
Whatever your takeaways from the gleefully obscure proceedings — I detected themes of the fluidity of identity and the dangers of putting blind trust in authority — there’s real gee-whiz pleasure to be found in watching actors of this caliber bringing pure, unadulterated dream logic to life.
That’s maybe especially true for Shannon, who has all the traditional tools necessary for the old Chicago school of machismo theater. Hollywood often asks him to use those tools, in variations on the role of Very Serious Straight Man. But he has a real affinity for the absurd, for using those same tools to subvert expectations, that he too rarely gets to deploy on screen. Thank goodness he can always come back to Chicago to get weird.