Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 29, $60-$100
Michael Feingold’s new translation of Eugène Ionesco’s 1958 absurdist black comedy, The Killer, is a manic-depressive journey into such extremes as heaven and hell, life and death, and freedom and Fascism. Stage, screen, and television veteran Michael Shannon, who first starred as Ionesco everyman Berenger in a Chicago revival sixteen years ago, suggested doing a new production with Theatre for a New Audience, and it was a good call, a triumph from start to finish. As the three-hour, three-act play opens, Berenger, a schlumpy, shaggy-haired man in a long coat, scarf, and hat (and who would go on to appear in Ionesco’s A Stroll in the Air, Exit the King, and Rhinoceros), is in awe of a Garden of Eden-like paradise the Architect (Robert Stanton) is showing him. “I just knew that in the middle of our gloomy city, right in among all our sad, dark neighborhoods full of mud and dirt, I would find this bright, beautiful area, not rich or poor, with these sunny streets, these avenues streaming with light — this radiant city that you’ve built inside our city,” Berenger says, approaching the edges of the empty stage and reaching out as if the audience were colorful flowers there for the touching. While the Architect is pleased with Berenger’s reaction, he is also quick to note that he is merely a government official doing his job. “It’s all prearranged, all intentional,” the Architect explains. “Nothing can be left to chance.” But soon Berenger is lamenting another side of this heavenly area, which also features a hellish lagoon through a trapdoor where corpses are gathering, the handiwork of a mysterious murderer.
The second act takes place in and around Berenger’s room, in a house run by a sarcastic concierge (Kristine Nielsen). “Don’t talk to me about philosophy,” she says. “I once got it into my head to take the advice of the Stoics, and look at everything in perspective. They didn’t help me one bit, not even Marcus Aurelius. In the long run he was no use to anybody, no better or worse than you or me. We’ve all got to find our own way out. That is, if there was one, but there ain’t.” Soon Berenger is met by his friend Edward (Shannon’s Boardwalk Empire colleague Paul Sparks), a creepy, ghostly man dressed all in black, clutching a briefcase in a dastardly manner. They discuss the radiant city, the killer on the loose, negligence, and indifference before deciding to take action. And in the third act, candidate Ma Piper (Nielsen) is stumping for votes, promising “free soup for everybody” and to “de-alienate humanity,” while Edward and Berenger search for the former’s missing briefcase until the police show up and chaos ensues, concluding with an impossibly long monologue delivered by Berenger, looking death in the face.
Shannon, who has been nominated for an Oscar for Revolutionary Road, won two Screen Actors Guild ensemble awards for his portrayal of Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire, and has been nominated for Lucille Lortel Awards for Bug and Mistakes Were Made, is mesmerizing as Berenger, ranging from ecstatic highs to deep lows as he contemplates joy and sadness, love and loss, and a complicated future. Director Darko Tresnjak, who just won a Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, keeps things peculiar all the way, mixing in bits of German Expressionism, film noir, and Italian neo-Realism on Suttirat Larlarb’s sparse set (which holds several little surprises) as Berenger continues his search for answers that are not easily forthcoming. Nielsen (Vania and Sonya and Masha and Spike) moves eagerly from frumpy concierge to goose-loving political candidate, while Sparks is plenty strange as the plenty strange Edward. At its center, The Killer is a captivating, perplexing allegory structured from the idea of original sin that follows humanity’s fall from grace. It’s also the third triumph in a row (after Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Michael Pennington starring in King Lear) for Theatre for a New Audience in its intimate new home, the shining Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, which has quickly fit right in as part of the growing Fort Greene Garden of Eden that also includes BAM, BRIC, and the Mark Morris Dance Center.