at Live Bait Theater
The Killing Game
Trap Door Theatre and Ensemble 1500
By Justin Hayford
Most people who adapt literature for the theater show respect, even reverence for the original texts. And critics typically line up to decide whether adapters got the look, feel, and structure of a book “right,” the assumption being that anything hardbound is inviolate. But Sean Cooper adapts–or should I say shreds–Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novel The Bathroom with impertinence. And my hat is off to him.
Few books deserve a paper shredder more than The Bathroom, Toussaint’s 1985 debut novel. Heralded as “hysterically funny,” “highly entertaining,” and even “a masterpiece,” in reality it’s a pretentious, structureless bore masquerading as a piece of existential absurdism. The dust jacket aims to convince the browser that the book is about a young graduate student named Rene who lives in his bathroom–when in fact he spends only the first five pages there. We’re also told that Rene is on a “search for immobility,” a task about as difficult as searching for the floor. In fact Rene leads a perfectly ordinary if rather dull life, making love with his girlfriend now and again, admiring the fixtures in his bathroom, chatting with two Polish painters redoing his kitchen, imagining a party at the Austrian embassy, staring at the rain. Through it all he’s preternaturally disengaged. If you wrote down everything you did during a particularly uneventful week, giving each item the same weight so you’d never remember what really mattered, you’d have your own Bathroom.
Toussaint tries to give Rene an unhealthy dose of existential aloofness (what psychiatrists might diagnose as dissociative disorder) of the sort that makes the title character in Camus’ The Stranger so intriguing. But while Camus created a moral whirlwind around his vacant protagonist, Toussaint creates nothing but vacancy, leaving Rene to tell us that he bought pajamas, socks, and underpants in a department store or to describe how people cross their legs when they sit (some hike up their trouser legs slightly). It’s never clear who Rene is; he’s not a character but a collection of banal quirks and uninsightful observations. Every 20 pages or so, Toussaint has Rene pause to consider the inevitability of death, but the accumulated weight of incessant trivialities makes such musings seem the unimaginative stunts of an author trying to make his book sound important.
Cooper accomplishes everything that Toussaint does not, putting real characters into urgent situations. Cooper’s Rene is not searching for immobility but fleeing desperately from it, explaining early in the play that perfect immobility is death, toward which all things tend. Yet Rene knows in his bones that immobility suits him best; he’s never happier than in the play’s opening moments, sitting fully dressed in the tub, listening to his Walkman and reading a book. Rene’s impossible situation–he’s running from the thing he desires most–becomes the central concern of Cooper’s play, driving the story forward at a breathless pace, twisting and turning instead of plodding through the novel’s trivialities.
While Toussaint simply piles one quirky anecdote on top of another, Cooper orchestrates a series of mind-numbing encounters that escalate Rene’s frustration. Alone in the bathroom at first, he’s soon visited by people who won’t shut up–or who just sit there, oppressively silent. His refuge destroyed, he goes into his kitchen, where the buffoonish painters spend the day cleaning octopus for lunch, tossing the mollusk around the room, sneezing all over the food every few minutes. Rene tries to socialize with other people only to find they lead one-note lives, whether they’re prattling on about burgundies and Bordeaux or humping nonstop in the middle of a party. Finally he flees to Venice but finds nothing to do there except play darts in his hotel room all day. His girlfriend Edmondsson–played with electrifying indifference by Erica Kelly–tracks him down and delivers a kind of final verdict. “Rene,” she tells him, “you’re boring.”
Cooper creates exquisite foils for Rene, surrounding him with immobile people; everywhere he goes, he meets the self he fears most. In Sean Marlow’s delicate, understated performance, Rene is buffeted about by the whims of fate, like the unfortunate character played by Griffin Dunne in After Hours, doing everything in his power to keep from lashing out or imploding. But while that character had a clear sense of direction–he wanted to go home–Rene remains perpetually, tragically suspended.
Cooper takes the aimlessness of Toussaint’s novel and dramatizes it, to great effect. He also manages to give credence to Rene’s existential dread, treated so perfunctorily in the book. Thanks in large part to Marlow’s sensitive portrayal, Rene’s hyperawareness of his own mortality never recedes into the background, no matter how ridiculous the escapade he’s caught up in. Death is everywhere for him, as Cooper suggests through the simplest devices: Rene wears two watches, one on each wrist, at which he stares in moments of panic, doubly aware that time is slipping away.
Cooper proves as able a director as he is a playwright. Assembling a fine cast, he shepherds them through a series of clear, meaningful stage pictures, transporting his audience to a dozen or so locations in slightly over an hour with hardly a pause for breath. To do so, he’s rewritten huge hunks of Toussaint’s text, invented dialogue, rearranged scenes, reimagined characters, and forced everything into a streamlined story in which tension continually builds. There isn’t a moment of recognizably French sensibility.
It would be easy to accuse Cooper of corrupting Toussaint’s postmodern meanderings, retooling his cool antinarrative into a red-hot plot machine–to say that he’s been seduced by the “pleasures of narrative.” And he’d be guilty as charged. But audiences are better off for it.
Across town, at the theater Marlow helped found five years ago and from which he’s currently on leave, Trap Door is dishing out a different helping of existential absurdity, Eugene Ionesco’s The Killing Game. A mysterious plague descends on an unnamed town neither modern nor ancient–people drop dead by the thousands, without symptoms or apparent cause. Several weeks later, the deaths stop as abruptly as they began. In those weeks, the townspeople frantically try to make sense of senseless carnage. It’s punishment from God, they tell one another, or payback for poor hygiene. It’s caused by poverty, or ignorance, or greed, or immorality, or sloth. It came from the bad part of town. It came from unclean thoughts.
With disquieting prescience, considering the plague that’s swept through our own land for the past two decades, Ionesco reveals the political uses of an epidemic, as the townspeople divide into warring ideological camps, each blaming the others for this disaster. As in all of Ionesco’s plays, it is the rigidity of absurd logic that creates conflict and exposes how petty and base human nature is.
But unfortunately Sheldon Patinkin’s shapeless production lacks any sort of rigidity. For the most part his cast–made up of Trap Door regulars and the terminally tepid actors of the newly formed Ensemble 1500–focus on irrelevant character quirks, fidgeting through TV-esque comedic acting, rarely rising to the exacting demands of the text.
The notable exceptions are Sharon Gopfert and Trap Door artistic director Beata Pilch, two of Chicago’s more skilled actresses. They not only understand the farcical mania inherent in Ionesco’s black carnival but have the chops to create it. If the rest of the company took an example from their ferocity and precision, the production might come to life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert G. Smith.