Eugene Ionesco’s theatre of absurdity features characters of gargantuan extremes. The Killer seems a slow-moving anomaly when compared to Ionesco’s more abstruse plays, such as The Bald Soprano or The Lesson. But with proper direction, an unhurried running time, and a patient audience, The Killer can be a powerful piece.
Veteran actor Michael Shannon takes on the lead role of Berenger, Ionesco’s everyman, whom he loosely modeled after himself. The play opens with Berenger’s discovery of a utopian neighborhood, a Pleasantville of warmth and euphoria and year-round summer. Berenger’s elation at this “radiant city” is short-lived, however, once he learns that paradise comes with one alarming caveat: a faceless killer, whose murders round out at about three every night. Even more portentous than this evil presence is the lackadaisical attitude of those who are aware of the problem – everyone seems to know, but few care.
That’s not good enough for Berenger, though, who bandies from startling highs to dizzying lows in his attempt to rally people to his cause, while everyone else hovers at an infuriating neutral. The play culminates in an isolated stand-off between Berenger and the Killer, where all his threats, rationale, and pleas are met with cold silence. In this world, death is neither tragic nor noble – it is nondescript and empty.
The Killer is very rarely performed; in fact, this is only the second time it has been performed off-Broadway since its Parisian premiere in 1959. It is not without reason that few feel equipped to take on this piece: it is easy to miss the point of The Killer altogether, and Ionesco himself lamented that very few understood its true meaning. Indeed, the typical response to the play is to try to hunt out its symbolism, to find some logic behind the chaos, when in fact it is this lack of understanding that makes the play poignant. It is a play about meaninglessness, or rather, coping with meaninglessness when it is inescapable, whether one is in a charming utopia or a filthy metropolis rife with noise pollution.
Too often, Ionesco’s characters are played as caricatures and grotesques, as manifestations of abstract metaphors. Director Darko Tresnjak recognizes that Ionesco’s work is best performed with an even balance between text and subtext. It allows a ludicrous premise to exist in a plausible world. This production stays almost entirely true to Ionesco’s original writing, obeying nearly every original stage direction. One major exception looms in the second act, which was originally written to be performed in complete darkness. Tresnjak instead keeps the lights on and the characters on stage (except for a few off-stage voices). The result is certainly far more entertaining, and allows for some slapstick comic relief in the form of Berenger’s sassy landlady (Kristine Nielsen). Some characters can be seen briefly through Berenger’s window, but it seems like a missed opportunity not to take more advantage of this unique stage direction. However, this is a small detail in an otherwise well-handled production.
Though the play mostly centers on Michael Shannon, there is no shortage of good performances. Paul Sparks commits with ripe comedic timing to the character of Berenger’s sickly friend Edward, giving him a slimy yet silly quality that is reminiscent of Danny Devito. Shannon himself has a strong mastery on the eccentricities of Berenger, lending a heart-breaking tragedy to him when he finds himself powerless against the Killer’s chilling stoicism. He expertly exemplifies the burden of being the only person awakened to reason in a world of madness.
“Oh…how weak my strength is against your cold determination, your ruthlessness!” Berenger moans. “And what good are bullets even, against the resistance of an infinitely stubborn will!”
The play offers little in terms of hope, but there has never been much room for hope in Ionesco’s plays. Rather than offer up a solution, The Killer offers us a diagnosis. When death is mundane, life becomes absurd.