Translated by Daniel Gerould
Interesting, oddly compelling avant-garde
|Trap Door Theatre presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
As I learned in undergraduate theater history, avant-garde has an important place in the arts. The best avant-garde will leave an audience emotional (laughing, crying or a bit of both) while also scratching their collective head: what exactly did we see, and how does that make me feel? My understanding of avant-garde doesn’t go beyond those two theater history courses long ago. Luckily, Chicago’s Trap Door Theatre seeks to fill in the cracks. While a bit slow-paced, their production of John Doe is very weird, a little funny, a little creepy and ultimately very effective.
After ushering in the audience (by number, rather than by name), two white-faced attendants manipulate the motions of an unconscious male: stripping, arranging and ultimately restraining him. This is Alexander Walpurg (Wesley Walker), a poet with a loud personality and presumably more than a few neuroses. When the attendants ask Anna (Holly Thomas Cerney) to further probe his psychosis using her feminine wiles while disguised as a nun, she’s initially reluctant but soon succumbs to his considerable charm. It’s love at first outburst – but the powers that be have other ideas.
John Doe is based on the translation of The Madman and the Nun (a far more apt title for this story), written by Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz. According to the program, Witkiewicz was a prominent figure in the European avant-garde scene, “a poet, painter, playwright, an expert on drugs, an early spokesman for a radically non-realistic theatre and an original philosopher and social critic of mass culture, post-industrial society, and the rise of totalitarianism.” Trap Door Theatre, which is based in Chicago but also does work in Europe, prides itself on “grassroots, avant-garde expressionism.” With this in mind, it’s not surprising the company would be attracted to Witkiewicz’s work and adapt this work for its own purposes. It’s a natural fit.
Director Andrzej St. Dziuk also adapted the translation and does a mostly admirable job. The dialogue and action aren’t always coherent (and I could do with a bit less screaming), and the pacing was a bit slow, but overall John Doe is far more entertaining and thought-provoking than the last show I reviewed at Trap Door, 2012’s The Arsonists. Though John Doe is often confusing and far from a traditional theater piece, it’s a funny rumination on the different facets of madness, observation and human relationships. The opening night audience was thoroughly engaged, laughing and gasping from beginning to end, which was rewarding to observe.
In addition to adapting and direction, Dziuk also designed the sound, a delightfully trippy blend of instrumental music and old-timey songs. Marek Mikulski’s set aptly conveys a horror movie-esque hospital: one can practically smell the old medicine, feces and sweat. Costume design, also by Mikuski, is spare but does the job; basic outfits with small, beautiful touches. Anita Podkowa’s choreography figures into the story at places that at first seem random, but upon further introspection are very carefully designed. Though some performances are over-the-top, there are some real standouts, particularly Johnny Graff as an enthusiastically sadistic psychologist; Cerney as a reluctant turned amorous, but always damaged, Anna; and Walker as the physical and mental force of nature that is the mad patient.
Avant-garde is increasingly rare, difficult to do well, and not always appreciated by a modern American audience. With that in mind, Trap Door Theatre’s John Doe is a remarkable effort, one an uninitiated audience can enjoy. Though the production is decidedly imperfect, it’s oddly compelling and represents an essential form of theater.
John Doe continues through October 25th at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20-$25 (with 2-for-1 admission on Sundays), and are available online through TicketLeap.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TrapDoorTheatre.com. (Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Maciej Mikulski
Holly Thomas Cerney (Sister Anna), Michael Garvey (Professor Ernest Walldorf), Johnny Graff (Dr. Ephraim Grun), John Gray (Dr. Jan Bidello), Mike Steele (Attendant), Beata Pilch (Attendant, Sister Barbara), Wesley Walker (Alexander Walpurg)
behind the scenes
Andrzej Dziuk (director, adaptator, sound design), Krzysztof Wnuk (assistant director), Anita Podkowa (choreographer), Richard Norwood (lighting design), Marek Mikulski (set design, costume design – Teatr Witkacy production), Mike Mroch, Wesley Walker (set design – Trap Door production), Jolanta Solska, Rachel Sypniewski (costume assistants), Gary Damico (stage manager), Skye Fort (assistant stage manager), Eli Grove (master carpenter), Maciej Mikulski (photos)