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.

  
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: Hamletmachine (Trap Door Theatre)

     
     

good design ≠ good machine

     
     

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

   
Trap Door Theatre presents
  
Hamletmachine
   
Written by Heiner Müller
Translated by Carl Weber 
Directed by
Max Traux
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through Feb 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As one of the leading figures in postmodern literature, Heiner Müller is nearly as widely influential as fellow German Bertolt Brecht. However, Müller, with ingenious methods of chopping up and pureeing language and story, never gets the same exposure on this side of the ocean as that master of alienation, Brecht. Some of this might come with time, considering that Brecht wrote about 30-50 years before Müller. American audiences may also have a hard time stomaching Müller’s intentionally entangled, muddy hairballs of non-linear narrative, which make Brecht’s plots look relatively straightforward.

Director Max Traux and Trap Door Theatre have a hard time dealing with Müller’s deliberate mess with their production of Hamletmachine, the playwright’s 1977 opus. The piece riffs on both Shakespeare and machines, slamming together Hamlet with 20th Century existentialist questions. Traux conceptualizes the 9-page play (!) as a rock opera of sorts, turning several of Müller’s phrases into musical catchphrases. Although the page length seems miniscule, it’s a very dense nine pages. Müller once staged a 7-hour production of Hamlet, featuring Hamletmachine as the play-within-a-play. At Trap Door, Traux spreads the text among three Hamlets, two Ophelias, and a Gertrude for good measure, further splintering the piece. The droning music, fierce acting, and heavy choreography impart weightiness, but it’s hard to discern much substance from Trap Door’s bloated production. We see lots of horrified expressions and hear plenty of pained soliloquies, but I was never sure exactly why anything was happening.

Müller and Traux are assuming that the audience is fairly familiar with Shakespeare’s original, arguably the most important work of literature in human history (we may have to reconsider after Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is published….). Here, Hamlet (either Antonio Brunetti, Rich Logan, or David Steiger) mulls over his usual philosophical inquiries while also posing questions about modern-day revolution and art. Müller really shows off his genius when placing Hamlet’s fundamentally human dilemmas in a contemporary context—“Tomorrow has been cancelled” is an oft-repeated line through the piece.

The cast does a noteworthy job breathing life into Traux’s bizarre, fluorescent-lit world. Rich Logan’s limber, ponytailed version of Hamlet is the most interesting to watch, even when hunkered down in the aisles and gleefully eyeing the action occurring on-stage. Tiffany Joy Ross and Sadie Rogers present two very different characterizations of Ophelia, adding further complexity to the piece. It was obvious the actors were all very committed, but the performances lacked clarity. One can’t expect defined motivations and objectives from such an expressionist extravaganza, but choices should make sense in some way. In Trap Door’s manic production, a lot of the meaning soars over the audience’s heads.

Jonathan Guillen and Nicholas Tonozzi provide an eerie soundscape for Traux’s hellish vision, with a focus on repetition a la Philip Glass. Costume designer Nevena Todorovic creates fascinating concoctions that combine Elizabethan styles with strong doses of steampunk. In general, the design does a fantastic job of evoking a specific mood (a bleak, unhappy mood), a specificity the rest of the production yearns for.

The best moment of the play occurs when Hamlet #3, David Steiger, gives a monologue describing a populist uprising. There is no singing or choreography, just an actor addressing the audience. Steiger gives the audience something to cling onto amid the storm. Even though that moment doesn’t gel with the rest of the play stylistically, it is the most powerful.

Trap Door’s failing, noble as it may be, is that the production is overburdened conceptually. Müller’s script is already a puzzle. In production, the confusion should be unraveled somewhat, not wound tighter. Traux’s vision of the play may be brilliant, but it doesn’t read.

     
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Composer & Sound Designer: Jonathan Guillen / Production Designer: Richard Norwood / Stage Manager: Barry Branfrod / Costume Designer: Nevena Todorovic / Graphic and Video Designer: Michal Janicki / Production Manager: Caitlin Boylan / Makeup Design: Zsófia ÖtvösMusic Collaborator: Nicholas Tonozzi

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

             
        

REVIEW: Chaste (Trap Door Theatre)

Bizarre love triangle

 

chaste2

 
Trap Door Theatre presents
 
Chaste
 
by Ken Prestininizi
directed by
Kate Hendrickson
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through June 19th   | tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Imagine the hit cornball sitcom “Three’s Company” re-imagined for an audience of existential-minded intellectuals. I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me. Brunette bombshell Janet Wood is recast as Paul Ludwig Carl Heinrich Ree, a lesser Jewish-German philosopher of the mid-19th century. Secretly straight bachelor Jack Tripper chastenenepaul is recast as Lou Andreas-Salome, the first female psychoanalyst and a student of Sigmund Freud. And buxom blond Chrissy Snow is Friedrich Nietzsche. Keep the copious amounts of sexual innuendo and add some pretty bizarre dream sequences and you have a template for the Trap Door Theatre’s newest production, Chaste.

Chaste is the third Ken Prestininizi play for the avant-garde theatre company to produce. In contrast to some of the other works that Trap Door has done recently, such as the enigmatic Minna (our review ★★★★), Chaste is much more digestible for a general audience. Although there are elements of the absurd sprinkled about, for the most part what you see is what you get. And what you get is an extraordinarily entertaining play about three abnormally awkward and hyper-intelligent thinkers who are stuck in a house and trapped in a love triangle.

The play borrows heavily from history. It is true that all three philosophers did once live together. It is true that Ree (John Kahara) introduced the much younger Salome (Sarah Tolan Mee) to Nietzsche (Antonio Brunetti). And it is true that the three made a pact to live together as a chaste trio in an effort to intellectually understand the secrets of life.

What actually transpired between the threesome is unknown. What is known is that Salome cut ties with Nietzsche, believing him to be desperately in love with her. This was made all the more complex because Ree and Salome had been a couple for some time.

chastehandkiss Prestininzi’s script is poetic without being overwrought. He conveys the madness and the intelligence of these three individuals without ever romanticizing their pursuit of an enlightened life through chastity. In fact, each character, in his or her own way, is somewhat pitiful. They all can wax-philosophic about the role of God, gender equality and the meaning of life, but not one of them seems to be a well-rounded, stable individual. It’s like watching three freakishly smart teenagers fight for the affections of one another.

The actors all play their roles with a fiery passion. Kahara as the nebbish Ree does an excellent job of playing up Ree’s patient restraint, which makes his sudden outbursts of insanity all the more impactful.

Brunetti is a scene stealer with his Salvador Dali-like facial expressions. Even when sequestered from action on another part of the stage, you can’t but help to look his way. No doubt the role of Nietzsche must have been a fun character to assume, and it is obvious that Brunetti revels in doing it.

Mee definitely has the thinnest resume out of the bunch, but she holds her own alongside her cast mates. Although there are moments where her portrayal of Salome threatens to become a Charles Dickens Estella caricature, she juggles the complex layers of the early feminist who seemed to have a schizophrenic love-hate relationship with men.

Tiffany Joy Ross rounds out the cast as Nietzsche’s overprotective sister Elisabeth. Ross’ frigid stare and scowling face could suck the fun out of any ménage a trios. She also succeeds in balancing the character’s stoic exterior with her brother-loving heart.

chasterefuseyou

Director Kate Hendrickson has directed every play that Trap Door has produced by Prestininizi. She has a keen eye for stunning stage pictures. And thanks to a fairly bare set save for a few platforms, the characters’ positions in reference to one another speak amply of their evolving relationships.

Chaste is a clever and often funny example of dramatic historical fiction. It is also probably the closest we’ll ever get to a 19th-century season of “Real World”. But contemporary television references aside, the lunacy that love inspires within these three lunatics, as told by a talented writer through a talented cast, makes for a four-star play.

 
 
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

chastei'mnotyoursister

Creative Team: Assistant Director: Jen Ellison / Sound Designers Jason Meyer & Shane Oman / Lighting Designer Gina Patterson / Set Designer Joseph Riley / Stage Manager Gary Damico / Costume Designer Nevena Todorovic / Makeup Designer Zsófia Ötvös / Graphic Designer Michal Janicki

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: ★★★★

minna-head

Continue reading

Review: Trap Door’s “12 Ophelias”

Begins brilliantly, but has incomplete finish

 header

Trap Door Theatre presents:

12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs

by Caridad Svich
directed by Kate Hendrickson
through October 31st (ticket info) 

 

   Ophelia: Do you think my heart is any lesser? 
 Gertrude: What do you mean? 
Ophelia: For being born.
 

 Kate Hendrickson’s direction pulls out all the stops for Trap Door Theatre’s current avant-garde production, 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs. Characters emerge from and descend into black pools, suggesting just how close oblivion always is. Projection screens made up of white petticoats hung on a line, when opheliataken down reveal an altogether different space. Musicians stationed in various locations suggest angels, as well as prostitutes, waiting their turn. Above all, rich poetic language and original songs create a potent atmosphere that may carry the production long past the point when characters’ psychological motivations fall short of the play’s premise.

After floating for centuries, Ophelia (Mildred Marie Langford) emerges in Appalachia, reborn from the water into a world in which Hamlet is now known as Rude Boy (Kevin Lucero Less); Gertrude (Joslyn Jones) runs a brothel; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, simply known as R (Jen Ellison) and G (Casey Chapman), are the brothel’s lackeys; and Horatio, now known as H (Noah Durham), spars with Rude Boy in daily camaraderie. It is a world in which Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet seem to have a second chance at love. But there are times when Caridad Svich’s reworking seems so far from the original, the two only connect superficially.

For one thing, Langford and Jones exude natural power in their acting. For another, their Ophelia and Gertrude, respectively, are not the weak, timid, easily manipulated women of Shakespeare’s work. As much as one appreciates the tremendous beauty in their strength, what should their characters’ former lives be to them or to us, if all resemblance breaks with the past? Svich’s Ophelia remembers her former life. “I left everyone unblessed,” she recalls of her suicide. Yet her ability to relish her robust sexual appetites and her outright pursuit of Rude Boy/Hamlet bear no relation to Shakespeare.

The only characters with any clear correspondence to their pasts are R and G, with memory so retained in their present consciousness, they recite Ophelia and Hamlet’s lines in parody before the newly reborn Ophelia. The commentary and interplay between R and G is probably the strongest feature of Svich’s work. Their foolery during the song “Lonesome Child,” which takes place opposite of Ophelia and Rude Boy/Hamlet’s lovemaking, is delightfully inspired.

ophelia-4 ophelia-2 ophelia-5

Sadly, Rude Boy may be the most underdeveloped character of the play. The most layered, erudite, and mercurial protagonist in Shakespeare’s pantheon is reworked with utter and brutal reductionism here. Gone is the princely state and Renaissance learning—Svich’s Rude Boy/Hamlet is little more than a womanizing thug. His final battle with H is an indulgent act of self-immolation; his eventual rejection by Ophelia reduces him to a pathetic, slobbering mass. About their former romance, Ophelia dismisses him with, “You were just a rude boy.” It’s a line that utterly breaks with Shakespeare’s realized creation. This abridged Rude Boy/Hamlet stacks the deck and buys this Ophelia’s empowerment on the cheap.

Amidst lush poetry, it’s this dramatic shallowness that belies Svich’s shortcomings. At least in this work, Svich shows greater psychological depth in conveying the state of loss and brokenness, rather than any true hope of recovery from it. Even R and G’s repeated commentary, “The crushed come back—there is no mending here,” loses all dramatic tension to become disproved. Some may revel in that kind of pre-scripted fatalism, but others may wonder what spending 90 minutes with this work was all about, if there was never any hope for healing and love. In spite of the cast’s talents and imaginative direction, the audience may walk away feeling cheated.

Rating: ««½

Continue reading