Trap Door’s They Dramatizes an Anti-Art Authoritarian Society—or Does It?

Chenard as Fondoloff and Huizenga as Tefuan. Photos courtesy Trap Door Theatre. A play at Trap Door Theatre always starts before it really starts. The open stage in the tiny theater is set and populated with characters from the play, in some indolent or preparatory stage. Sometimes they interact with audience members. Before They begins, Spika, Countess Tremendosa (Mary-Kate Arnold), introduces herself, asks your name, and invites you to step on the stage to view the art exhibit. She points out there are two “original” Picassos in the gallery. The setting includes an exhibit of 20 original paintings by 14 Chicago artists, curated by Zsófia Ötvös. They, by Polish writer/artist Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz, is about art and artists, censorship, misogyny, and art’s relationship to government. And maybe a few other things. It’s a dramatic, passionate experience, although by the end, you may not be sure exactly what it was about. Director Beata Pilch has adapted the Witkiewicz script and creates a fast-moving, highly choreographed production. Arnold as Spika and Wisniewski as Callisto. The play is set in the gallery of Callisto Balandash (Carl Wisniewski), a self-styled genius and aficionado of modern art. During the opening, he’s being interviewed on television, stating his views of art. He and Spika are lovers but he’s a full-on misogynist who demeans Spika and women in general. Spika is preparing for her role in a play to open tomorrow, The Independence of Triangles, and she argues with her script as she learns her lines. The mysterious “They” are threatening and malevolent. “They are moving in next door.” “They are at the door.” “They are running everything but no one knows who THEY actually are.” Two villains in mime makeup stomp into this creative environment to question the place of art. Seraskier Banga Tefuan (Adam Huizenga) wears dangerous red pants. His sidekick is Melchior Fondoloff (Daniel Chenard). “Art is social lawlessness” is their motto. They cover the art displayed in Callisto’s gallery and cancel Spika’s play opening. A sculpture of stacked painted cups at center stage comes to a bad end. “Something has to die so something new can be born.” But it’s never clear who the censoring agent is and what new thing is to be born. They is 80 minutes of madness with never a moment of peace. The Trap Door troupe performs in a highly physical style and Kasey Foster’s choreography contributes to Pilch’s direction. The strongest performances are by Arnold and Huizenga. Set design is by Stefan Roseen with costumes by Rachel M. Sypniewski and original music and sound design by Danny Rockett. David Holcombe is the videographer. Trap Door, now in its 24th season, always creates startling theater, which is exciting, sometimes bizarre, but never boring. They specialize in avant-garde, expressionistic plays, mostly by eastern European playwrights. Witkiewicz (1885-1939) was considered a brilliant figure of the European avant garde. He was a poet, painter, playwright, an expert on drugs, an advocate for nonrealistic theater, and a critic of mass culture and totalitarianism. They continues at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland, through January 13. Performances are at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $20-25 with two-for-one tickets on Fridays. Call 773-384-0494 or buy tickets online.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.