Credit: Mike Hari/Fadeout Media

“We are not ourselves.” —Victims of Duty

A Red Orchid Theatre first produced Eugène Ionesco’s Victims of Duty
in 1995. Ah, those were simpler times, were they not, mon ami? Bill Clinton
was in the White House, lying plenty but at least not gratuitously. At
least you felt there was a rational bedrock to his lies and a temperamental
preference for the truth in his politics. Or maybe you didn’t. But it was a
possible feeling to have. I dare you to have it now, about Donald Trump. Or
Congress. Or the news. Or the Internet. The needle has moved. Moved? Hah!
The needle is gone. I feel like I live inside a giant baby’s bouncy toy,
and the kid keeps knocking it across the room.

Which is approximately why the folks at A Red Orchid decided it’s time for
another go at Victims of Duty. “When we did it then, its meanings
were deep for us, very personal and somewhat abstract,” says a program note
from Shira Piven, who directed both the current and 1995 productions. “Now
there is also a social/political resonance that we can’t escape, as much as
we might want to.”

The play is an apt choice for anybody trying to catch a scary zeitgeist. It
premiered in France in 1953, the seventh in a series of eight short,
radically original Ionesco plays that started with The Bald Soprano (1950), fed off the vertigo of World War II, and
defined what came to be known as the theater of the absurd. Like Soprano, Victims of Duty opens on a scene of conventional
domestic tranquility. Choubert is sitting in his apartment, reading a
newspaper. His wife, Madeleine, knits nearby. They discuss this and that:
unpicked-up dog poop, Aristotle, and the new government announcement
“urging all the citizens of the big towns to cultivate detachment.” There’s
a knock at the door. It’s the Detective. He isn’t even looking for them but
for the concierge, who never seems to be home. They’re so accommodating,
though—and the detective is so handsome, well mannered, and nicely dressed
(“What a wonderful pair of shoes!”)—that they offer to see if they can’t
help him.

Big mistake. The Detective is looking for a malefactor named Mallot. Does
Choubert know him? No? Well, no matter. Through a process of bullying and
insinuation, the Detective convinces not only himself but Choubert that
Choubert is Mallot’s pal.

There follows a strange, strenuous, perfectly ridiculous, and utterly
extraordinary sort of psycho-picaresque: Choubert getting submerged in
mental mud and flying off mental mountains, half-dead, dazed, ecstatic, as
the Detective and an all too cooperative Madeleine force him to track down
the elusive Mallot. In one vignette that amounts to a throw-away
masterpiece, Choubert finds himself in conversation with his dead father,
their confrontation rendered at once harrowing and inane by the fact that
neither can hear the other.

In a way—a big way, really—Victims of Duty is only incidentally
political. It’s mostly designed to satirize the state of French culture,
with Choubert’s various adventures doubling as parodies of what a native
audience would recognize as familiar tropes, styles, and philosophies.
(Detective to Nicholas, a poet who turns up late in the play: “Everyone
ought to write.” Nicholas to Detective: “No point. We’ve got Ionesco and
Ionesco, that’s enough!”) Still, the Detective’s menace, Choubert and
Madeleine’s suggestibility, their collective obedience to pointless
government orders, and, particularly, their centerlessness—the way they
torque their identities, language, and even senses to the mirage of
authority—all speak loudly to the current giant-baby-bouncy-toy moment.

Focused on that moment, Piven doesn’t seem to have a strategy for dealing
with the satire. She neither cuts names like that of Paul Bourget, a
forgotten French literary god, nor finds ways to make them legible to a
21st-century Chicago audience. More important—and I know this will sound
strange—she doesn’t do much to ground the absurdity in normality. Choubert
and Madeline are first discovered, for instance, sitting beside a bathtub,
which is absurd enough in itself that their subsequent actions lose some of
their shock value. The uses to which she puts the tub and a second pool of
water, however, make for wild if arbitrary fun.

And then too, she’s got Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen, both of
whom were in the 1995 staging. A close relative of his villain in The Shape of Water, Shannon’s Detective makes excellent use of
that familiar pained grimace that says, See what you made me do?
to his prey. Van Swearingen, meanwhile, has the physical chops to render
Choubert’s descents and ascents vivid. Karen Aldridge is similarly agile,
taking Madeleine from catty to ancient to erotic at will.   v