Review: The First Ladies (Trap Door Theatre)

  
  

Play proves potty language can be poetry

  
  

Nicole Wiesner, Dado, Beata Pilch - Trap Door Theatre - The First Ladies

  
Trap Door Theatre presents
    
The First Ladies
   
Written by Werner Schwab
Translated by
Michael Mitchell
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

I don’t think it is a coincidence that playwright Werner Schwab hails from the same nation as Sigmund Freud. Both are utterly obsessed with notions of sex and bowel movements. Human orifices attract their attention, especially when something is going in or coming out one. And both enjoy venturing to the deep, dark crevices of the human mind, those mental closets where our skeletons are stored. In short, Austria must be one hell of a place.

This is what I have deduced after seeing Trap Door Theatre‘s brilliant production of Schwab’s The First Ladies. The flawless work is a wicked and twisted comedy about the futile dreams of the lower class. The language is poetic without pretension, the acting is solid as stone and the set design is exquisitely detailed—and all this from a play that proudly boasts several lengthy monologues about scooping excrement out of a toilet with one’s bare hands.

Nicole Wiesner - Trap Door Theatre - The First LadiesThe play, told in two acts, is about three lower class ladies, each of whom sports her own unique dream of fulfillment and satisfaction. The first act is mainly exposition.

Erna (Dado) is the prude. She is a teetotaler and a woman of God. She is proud of the fur hat and color television she found in a garbage dump, and she is quick to judge the other ladies for their lack of restraint. We learn she has a son who has an affinity for drinking and violent outbursts.

Meanwhile, Greta (Beata Pilch) is the saucy one. She dons faux-snakeskin pants and a series of gold chains. While Erna eagerly watches televised communions, Greta slouches in her gaudy armchair, legs akimbo, looking bored out of her mind. She is the type of lady you would neglect to call a lady. She has an estranged daughter who lives in Australia that she hasn’t heard from in nearly a decade.

And then there’s Marie (Nicole Wiesner), sweet and simple Marie. She is the Lenny of the bunch, prone to wild hand gestures and goofy facial expressions. She is a people pleaser at heart, but the way she chooses to please is unorthodox to say the least. Her profession is to unclog toilets. But she does it with gusto and bare hands. Because of her imbecile nature, the other two ladies are quick to overlook her.

The second act focuses on each lady’s dream. The three women take turns sharing bits and pieces of their fantasies, which all take place at the same fancy nightclub. Erna dreams of being swept off her feet by the local butcher; Greta envisions being sexually pleasured by a tuba player and Marie finds treasures at the bottom of toilets. It’s incredibly absurd, but the conviction of the actors, the adeptness of the direction and the cleverness of the script make it work.

Beata Pilch - Trap Door Theatre - The First LadiesAll the actresses do outstanding jobs, but special accolades must be paid to Wiesner, whose portrayal of Marie the simpleton is absolutely stunning. She truly embodies this character, as evidenced by her performance’s unwavering consistency. And the end, where Marie delivers a powerful, metaphor-laced monologue, is a prime example of technical acting skill.

TUTA Theatre‘s artistic director Zeljko Djukic directs The First Ladies with the skilled hand of a master. There is a lot of give and take in this play, with the women exchanging focus regularly. Djukic makes sure the hand off is smooth and the energy never drops. Also, changes in tone and mood are handled in an organic matter so as to be unforced yet still effectively jarring.

Schwab’s word choice and sentence structure (as translated by Michael Mitchell) is wholly unique. He certainly practices the economy of language, using precision to create concise sentences impregnated with significant meaning. It’s a staccato form of poetry that hits the ear in what I would describe as musical cacophony. It’s not necessarily pretty, but its ugliness has a certain beauty.

The First Ladies is an unsettling laugh-out-loud comedy that proves high art can have elements of the low brow. If you’re easily sickened by graphic talk of bathroom by-products, toughen up and see this play.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Nicole Wiesner - Trap Door Theatre - The First Ladies

The First Ladies continues through April 16th with performances on Thursday-Sunday at 8pm.  Tickets are $10 on Thursdays and $20 on Friday and Saturdays.  For more information and tickets, go to trapdoortheatre.com.

All photos by Michal Janicki.

  
  

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REVIEW: Minna (Trap Door Theatre)

American Premier Is Absurd Entertainment

 Minna 2 

Trap Door Theatre presents:

Minna

by Howard Barker
directed by Nicole Wiesner
thru February 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

minna_high_res2 It’s a pompous thing to create and name your own style of theatre. Some might say to do so takes a lunatic. Enter Howard Barker.

Barker is a British playwright who currently heads up his own company, The Wrestling School. The Wrestling School serves as a testing ground for his homemade, self-named theatrical genre, “Theatre of Catastrophe.” This style, according to Barker, “takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster’s gut.” Furthermore, Barker does not anchor his work in realism or any sort of ideology. He is of the idea that art should be bold and challenging. And boy is his work challenging…and, surprisingly, rewarding.

Minna is a jaw-droppingly complex piece of theater. It bewilders and amazes on so many levels, like viewing a three-ring circus under the influence of some potent hallucinogen. Even as I write this, I find it difficult to describe the small semblance of a plot, yet the emotion the play draws out flows as if I’m currently watching the production. Really, it’s like a nightmare that just lingers with you for days.

To the best of my understanding, the play is about a young woman named Minna (Geraldine Dulex). She and the rest of the characters span two time periods, switching back and forth rather seamlessly and without warning. The first time period appears to be the 18th century. Men wear boots and frilly shirts while women don dresses that accentuate their bottom halves. Two corpses hang in the background—in fact they hang for the entire play, occasionally pleading to Minna, warning her of some fate they wish her not to befall. There is a military man named Tellheim (Kevin Cox) who evokes fear, anger and lust from Minna. A landlord (Derek Ryan) with a case of split personality presides over Minna’s quarters while three women, all named Fransisca (Sadie Rogers, Pamela Maurer and Kinga Modjeska), follow Minna dotingly like shadows.

Meanwhile, the fourth wall is all but obliterated as the Count (John Gray), a stereotypical British fop, takes a seat in the middle of the audience at the start of the show. He hems and haws throughout, making lewd comments in between stuffing his face with fruit and gazing through his opera glasses.

Minna 3 Minna 4

The other time period is more contemporary, whisking the characters away to the mid-20th century. In this world, Minna is a powerful attorney and her antagonist, Tellheim, is on trial. Other characters appear as their parallel selves.

If Barker’s mission was to dash, subvert and corrupt any expectations the audience has of what might happen at any moment within the play, then he is absolutely successful. Randomness abounds as characters act out forced sexual acts, cross dress and occasionally call each other by the actors’ names. It’s a play that doesn’t want to be a play. It wants to be performance art. Yet it is a play, and a damn good one.

All the actors in the production must be commended. The dialogue is some of the most difficult I’ve ever witnessed. Often it has no semblance of reason. It’s seemingly random at parts, yet poignant at others. Often it’s delivered with the mania of a mad man. Yet all actors manage to channel this insanity into something real, something worth watching. No. More than worth watching—something great. This was art.

Minna is the directorial debut for Trap Door ensemble member Nicole Wiesner. Like the actors, she manages to construe something completely insane into a complex, yet digestible, production. Oftentimes every character on stage is doing something, making some face or emoting some feeling. Wiesner consistently manages to convey this without drowning out the point of focus.

Minna is definitely not for all. It’s a bucking bronco of a play that tries hard to shake the audience. But come prepared for the absurd, and hold on tight. It’s well worth it.

Rating: ★★★★

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