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by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Eugene Ionesco, translated by Helen Gary Bishop

At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets: 312-943-8722;; $30-$40. Runs through: June 23

In the '50s-'60s, you couldn't escape French-Romanian absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco ( 1909-1994 ).

His one-acts were the daily bread of university and community theaters; his longer works—such as Rhinoceros and Exit the King—were staged in Paris, London and New York with stars such as Zero Mostel and Laurence Oliver. This play was new in 1970—about when Ionesco's star began to wane.

In it, a swiftly -killing plague of unknown origins has struck town and blame quickly follows: it's the poor, the immigrants, the rich, the empowered; it's a government plot; it's divine punishment. People say "It has nothing to do with us" and "We haven't done anything wrong." Doctors declare death itself doesn't exist if people follow proper hygiene, and then the doctors drop dead. A review of a 1987 Chicago production called it a metaphor for AIDS.

Not seen locally in a dozen years, The Killing Game now fits our increasingly tribal contemporary world, and our own nation where the Donald promotes divisiveness and fear. Still, The Killing Game is hard to swallow—as much as one can admire this energetic production—because classic absurdist comedy no longer is in vogue.

The play is ostentatiously literate, using the medieval Dance of Death for inspiration and echoing end-of-civilization stories such as Lord of the Flies. It's often amusing and witty, especially when Ionesco plays with words, language and meanings. But it also is circular and repetitive, hammering home a few points in multiple parallel situations. Also, U.S. audiences generally prefer realism in theatre with sustained characters with whom they can empathize; but The Killing Game is none of that, with a sketch-like sequence of changing scenes and characters. Perhaps wisely, A Red Orchid performs a crisp translation of the play as a long one-act.

A really wonderful director, Dado, has staged this production with great imagination and vitality, incorporating musical chants ( medieval reference ), props shaped like body-part props ( there's just a touch of cannibalism ) and video ( Michael Shannon cameo ) among other devices. The ensemble of 13 actors—none of whom play a specifically named character—performs with energy and surprising focus given the play's checkerboard structure. Near the end, an ancient couple appears, oblivious to the death around them, enthusing about love and the world's beauty ... which seems to be the plague's antidote. If only it were that simple!

The Killing Game will not suit all tastes, but it should be seen. Absurdism as a style of theater remains far more popular in Europe than it ever was in the United States, so this production is a good way to broaden one's theatrical horizons. It's thoughtful, immensely theatrical and an ambitious choice for A Red Orchid.

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