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Saturday, November 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

"The Chairs": Couple teeters on the late edge of life

By Brangien Davis
Special to The Seattle Times

Gordon and Valda Setterfield play an elderly and isolated couple, living at the late edge of life in a loop of repeated memories and snippets of show tunes in "The Chairs."
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In the same way Lance Armstrong says, "It's not about the bike," David Gordon's Eugene Ionesco update is not about the chairs.

Yes, the title of the classic absurdist play is "The Chairs." Yes, the objects populate the otherwise empty stage like a herd of stiff black sheep. And yes, Gordon's impressive dance career is littered with the metal folding chairs he so often employed in his pieces. But this one's not about the chairs.

It's about an elderly and isolated couple, living at the late edge of life in a loop of repeated memories, snippets of show tunes and stunted aspirations. It's about legacy and regret, what-could-have-beens and what-should-have-beens, lost loves, lost children and lost meaning.

Considering its reputation as one of the cornerstones of Theater of the Absurd, the play is quite accessible. Gordon and Valda Setterfield, partners in life and work for more than 40 years, make it more so, their long history rushing like a river of subtext.

An opening segment featuring scratchy black-and-white footage of the two dancing together in the '70s (with folding chairs, of course) adds incomparable depth to their staged marital interactions that are endearing, recognizable and often hilarious.


Thursday night (repeated Friday and Saturday), On the Boards, Seattle

The old couple enacts a verbal dance with each other, finishing each other's sentences, egging on and correcting stories as well worn as their patchwork clothes, and simultaneously praising and scolding. "You are so talented," the woman repeats to her husband. "If only you had some get up and go."

Though Gordon may have more words in the script, which flies in on slips of paper tossed by jump-suited helpers offstage, it's Setterfield who steals the show as the woman who knows best how to deal with her mewling "Pussycat" of a husband. (She's especially riotous when coming on to one of the many invisible guests who arrives to hear the husband's final message to the world.)

As the imaginary audience packs the house, the old man's frustrated blustering accelerates with the speed at which more chairs are brought into the room. The end is drawing near, and he's in a panic about all he meant to say but never did — a fear shared by most humans. What if it turns out, as it does here, that the spokespersons you've hired garble your message into nonsense?

The final moments are nothing short of devastating, rendering the audience stunned and still, and suddenly aware that we are all left sitting in chairs.

Brangien Davis:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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