Matthew Reddin

Old Geezers with Big Dreams

Alchemist offers absurdist play The Chairs and the Rep does The Whipping Man.

By - Feb 5th, 2014 11:57 am
The Chairs

The Chairs

The man has a message, it seems. His wife has put out chairs for the guests. But the chairs are empty.

This is how Eugène Ionesco begins The Chairs, one of the many absurdist plays he wrote in the 1950s and ‘60s as part of the French avant-garde movement. As it progresses, its two characters, an aged husband and wife, chat back-and-forth with each other and their invisible guests about their lives and the great secret they will all soon learn.

It may sound a bit vague,  but Leda Hoffmann, directing the Alchemist Theatre production beginning this week, doesn’t see it that way. Absurdist theater has a bad reputation, she says, because so many companies stage works intending to confuse the audience and leave them without answers. “Our goal is not to leave you bewildered,” she says – she and her actors (Tim Linn and Kelly Doherty) have the answers, they’re just going to make you work for them.

Hoffmann has a history of presenting Milwaukee with complex, thought-provoking plays, a reputation all the more impressive given this is only her fourth year in the city. She came here as a directing intern for the Milwaukee Rep – an experience that she says made it “incredibly obvious” that directing was what she should be doing – and has since become a member of Rep artistic director Mark Clements’ team as the literary coordinator. But this summer, she went independent, directing a remarkably strong production of King Lear at the Alchemist and self-producing a play called The Penelopiad in the playground under the Holton Street Viaduct, which traced the story of the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope.

She came to direct The Chairs thanks to Aaron Kopec, owner of the Alchemist. Hoffmann says he called her up in the fall and said he had a hole in his schedule, and offered her carte blanche to produce anything she wanted. It was a request so open-ended she couldn’t resist, so Hoffmann turned to her theatrical bucket list. There she found The Chairs, a play she’d been fascinated with ever since seeing it at Toronto’s Soulpepper theater in her second year of college.

That production, she says, got to the heart of its characters and their story, despite having only the most minimalist framework to deal with – an achievement Hoffmann hopes to emulate. It also had the characteristic Hoffmann’s come to realize she seeks out in plays: a conscious awareness of their own theatricality. “I like plays that know they’re plays,” Hoffmann says, “Filling a stage with invisible people is totally a theatrical convention.”

Hoffmann admits a play like The Chairs sounds like a hard sell, but thinks audience members who give it a chance will find it pays off. It may seem like nothing more than a story about an elderly couple setting up chairs for an imaginary audience, she says, but there’s far more to it. It’s a story about a couple chasing their hopes and dreams – though their dreams might be a bit different that you’d expect.

The Chairs runs Feb. 7 through Feb. 22 at the Alchemist Theatre. Performances are at 7:30 Thursdays through Saturdays, and tickets are $20; order here

PREVIEW: The Whipping Man, at the Milwaukee Rep

Whipping Man

The Whipping Man

The Milwaukee Rep opens The Whipping Man, the second show in its envelope-pushing Stiemke Studio this season. Unlike its predecessor, the contemporary Venus in Fur, this play is a period piece set in the days just after the Civil War, as a crippled Confederate soldier returns to his family home to find two emancipated slaves remaining, waiting to decide whether they’ll remain at the estate for wages or strike out on their own. That’s already a drama-ready premise, but playwright Matthew Lopez gives it one last twist that fundamentally defines the play: the family and slaves are Jewish, and it’s Passover – the traditional celebration of the Hebrews’ deliverance from their own enslavement in ancient Egypt. You can just see the parallelism lining up, can’t you?

The Whipping Man opens (on the atypical evening of) Saturday, Feb. 8, and runs through March 16. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at (414) 224-9490 or online.

PREVIEW: Glengarry Glen Ross, at Off the Wall Theatre

What are the odds that two companies would do two Mamet pieces in the same month? Who cares – we’re not here for math, we’re here for theater, and while you can catch one of David Mamet’s more recent plays in Walker’s Point (Race, at Next Act), you can find one of his classics Downtown at Off the Wall. Glengarry Glen Ross is arguably the work that cemented Mamet’s reputation, a harsh, realistic play about four salesman who are pitted against each other by their bosses for the chance to win a Cadillac and/or keep their jobs. This tightly wound bit of office politics and social commentary will only run two weeks, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 16. Order tickets at (414) 484-8874 or visit Off the Wall’s website.

PREVIEW: Shooting Star, at Boulevard Theatre 

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Boulevard Theatre offers Shooting Star, a romantic comedy about two former lovers (back in their college days at UW-Madison) accidentally reunited at a snowed-in airport. It’s by playwright Steven Dietz, who year after year is one of most produced playwrights in America (he placed eighth on the list in 2010, tied with Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee for the number of productions. It’s directed by longtime Cardinal Stritch theater veteran David Oswald, who directed past Boulevard productions of Waiting for Godot and The Play About the Baby. The New York Times called Shooting Star a “wistful comedy” that “expertly melds humor, tenderness and rueful nostalgia.”

February 5-16 at the Boulevard Theatre, 2252 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Tickets are $20-$23. Visit



Marcus Center: Evita, through Feb. 9

Renaissance Theaterworks: The Understudy, through Feb. 9

First Stage: A Midnight Cry, Todd Wehr Theatre, through Feb. 9

Milwaukee Rep: End of the Rainbow, Quadracci Powerhouse, through Feb. 9



Next Act: Race, through Feb. 23

Skylight: In the Heights, through Feb. 23

Fireside Theatre: Solid Gold ‘60s, through Feb. 23

First Stage: The Cat in the Hat, Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, through March 2

Milwaukee Rep: Woody Sez, Stackner Cabaret, through March 9

0 thoughts on “Theater: Old Geezers with Big Dreams”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always liked Ionesco’s The Chairs, so I’m curious about Milwaukee’s interpretation at the Alchemist Theater. Thank you for these play reviews!

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