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: 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