A video in the opening sequence of The Chairs documents David Gordon and Valda Setterfield’s long artistic history with folding chairs. While a cellist onstage plays Michael Gordon’s soft elegies, footage shows the dancers in their studio wedging into metal chairs, climbing on them, stepping and jumping over them, burrowing through them, rattling them, walking and crawling with them. The seats comprise a running motif in the dance-theater pieces Gordon has created since his days as a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, and the director-choreographer embraces them purely for their function. They offer no theatrical or aesthetic values, no emotional resonance. The dancers’ continual re-engagements with the objects suggest physical fluidity and redefinition.
In Eugene Ionesco’s 1952 play, however, chairs must provoke endless possibilities through mystery, not utility. When Ionesco’s ancient married couple fills a room with empty chairs to hold a fantastical fete, they invest each empty seat with a phantom presence. Savoring the event’s magnificence, the hosts conclude that only a great speech will satisfy their guests—but the words they summon prove as empty as their vacant rows.
In Gordon’s staging, the empty places retain the neutral nature they hold in his dances, and don’t evoke either an absence or a presence. The difference is important: Using only a small dance floor and two wheeled door frames on the Harvey’s bare stage, the production assigns no enigma to the space. Numbered black metal folding chairs, transported by anonymous onlookers, add to a feeling of transparency. Most directors prefer to handle this overly familiar text with spectacle and coups de théâtre, if at all; Gordon strips away those layers to emphasize the strength of the couple’s imagination and desire. But despite Michael Feingold’s resonant new translation, Gordon’s and Setterfield’s eccentric inflections and conversational rhythms tend to have a flattening effect. Until the final scene’s swell of inexpressible emotion, many gestures, such as the pages they drop throughout, seem incomplete as ideas.
As the Old Man and Old Woman, Gordon and Setterfield (married offstage as well) resemble a fuzzy New Yorker cartoon’s crackpot couple; with Gordon’s frizzy mop of hair, thick mustache and tinted Groucho glasses, and Setterfield knitting a patchy scarf, you can almost imagine hundreds of cats cluttering their studio instead of chairs. In keeping with the piece’s video preface, the two artists’ identities overlap with the characters they assume. In the finale, as photographs are waved of their past performances, the couple face us as they bid their invisible audience farewell. Ionesco’s broken words double as a personal homage to an accomplished career.