Michael Shannon is a detective who doesn’t solve mysteries—he only creates more of them.
Let us consider, for a moment, the elusive Michael Shannon in his natural habitat: the cramped storefront stage of a A Red Orchid Theatre, the company that he helped found and to which he frequently returns. Shannon has made a thriving career in Hollywood as a thinking man’s villain, with his looming frame and bug-eyed intensity injecting eldritch weirdness into many a stock character. But to see him flopping joyfully about in this remount of Eugene Ionesco’s Victims of Duty is to see a man truly at home. Too often, the movies keep Shannon pent up in a cage performing tricks. A Red Orchid lets him roam free.
When Hollywood celebrities do plays, there’s usually too much ego on display for anything genuine to get through. The star has to be presented as a star, and the rest of the work suffers. Though Shannon has maintained a reputation as an actor’s actor, it’s inspiring to watch him blend into this stellar ensemble. Actors Karen Aldridge and Guy Van Swearingen, who starred alongside Shannon in the original 1996 production, get just as much shine. Van Swearingen is a former Red Orchid artistic director, and Aldridge is an accomplished stage and screen actress in her own right—in many other shows, she’d be the headliner.
The script for Victims of Duty is the kind that makes a critic stare blankly at their computer screen, flummoxed by the task of writing actual English sentences to describe it. Ionesco was one of the 20th century’s leading absurdist writers, and this early play lives up to its label. It begins with a man named Choubert (Van Swearingen) and his wife, Madeline (Aldridge), peacefully discussing the new government policy of “detachment.” After Choubert writes off all theatre stories throughout history as mere thrillers and detective stories, a detective (Shannon) enters to question them about their flat’s previous tenant, a sketchy fellow named Mallot.
Choubert believes he has a memory of this guy buried somewhere in his brain, so the detective menacingly guides him on a tour of his subconscious. From there, the play splinters into hundreds of psychosexual shards: Shannon gives a howitzer of a monologue as Chourbert’s brutish father performs as a clown, Madeline and the detective seem to have an affair and Choubert climbs a metaphorical mountain as Van Swearingen climbs the very real set. After some time, Chicago staples Rich Cotovsky and Mierka Girten join the fray and, before his grand exit, Shannon’s detective also gets in a hardy “Long live the white race.” There’s clearly a lot happening here.
The plentiful joys of director Shira Piven’s production come from a dogged commitment to insanity. The white, Kubrickian set (designed by Danila Korogodsky) includes a bathtub and a pool of sorts—both filled with real water. The actors get to splashing fairly quickly, and soon enough they are drenched from head to toe. The play is brutally funny and manically energetic, which is captured best by Aldridge and Shannon in a game of unhinged charades, that infuses a deep horror at man’s own cruel existence.
There’s no real thesis to be had, but the production leaves a number of bruising impressions. Shannon’s performance alone is a masterful deconstruction of his own Hollywood archetype. His detective is a tall, frightening brute turned inside out to reveal a screechy, petulant child. When it reaches fever pitch, Shannon’s voice doesn’t bellow—it honks. In the movies, most directors don’t know what to do with it. Piven, on the other hand, uses it perfectly. It’s clear that Shannon relishes performing with A Red Orchid, and Victims of Duty leaves no doubt as to why.
A Red Orchid Theatre. By Eugene Ionesco. Directed by Shira Piven. With Michael Shannon, Guy Van Swearingen, Karen Aldridge, Richard Cotovsky, and Mierka Girten. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.