The Old Woman Broods at Trap Door Theatre Is an Absurdist, Prescient Satire—or Is It?

The Old Woman Broods cast. Photo by Chris Popio. In case you think brooding suggests gloom and doom, think otherwise. Trap Door Theatre’s The Old Woman Broods is chaotic, cacophonous and more than a little cuckoo. The 1969 play by Polish playwright Tadeusz Różewicz is prescient in its warnings of crises to come: climate disaster, garbage and trash piles, World War 3, problems of aging and infertility (for more on which, see Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful 2006 film, Children of Men). In a perverse way, Różewicz honors the struggles of women giving birth and experiencing maternal love, its rewards and its horrors. The play (I won’t use the word plot), set at an indeterminate time in a nondescript café, revolves around the Old Woman (Manuela Rentea), layered in skirts, petticoats, bustier, sweater, socks and booties. She’s prepared for every climate, although she despairs of being cool again because it has become so bloody hot. The smartly dressed Waiter (Michael Mejia) serves his patrons (when he feels like it) and occasionally issues commentary and news reports. When asked for water, he says, “The earth’s water supply is dwindling, you know. Right now, people in this town are only allowed one glass of clean water a day. Gangs tamper with the water system. We’ve been without water for almost two weeks. All the rivers, lakes, and oceans are already polluted.” And later, “In the last few days we’ve been experiencing drastic temperature changes. In some places, nighttime temperatures have been below zero and low pressure is heading our way from the west, bringing clouds and snow. Sunrise is 7:45, sunset at 6:52. The Dow Jones is up and the NASDAQ’s down.” The Old Woman’s whimsies and demands are the center of the story but she has plenty of company, although she sometimes speaks directly to us. The play opens with the Narrator (Keith Surney) describing the setting and then sitting down at a typewriter to write … something. He also occasionally reads stage directions. Rentea and Mejia as the Old Woman and the Waiter. Photo by Chris Popio. Another waiter, Cyril (an athletic Dennis Bisto), provides assistance and sweeps up trash. The Gentleman (Carl Wisniewski) is a café guest and doubles as the Doctor, when the Old Woman needs assistance in her quest for fertility. “I want to have a baby ,” she says. “I’m a bit late. I’ve had a forty-year break. I had no time. I couldn’t conceive before/before I was barren but now everything’s changed. The time is right.” She demands the Romanian (or Italian) doctor who does hormone therapy. The playwright also provides a sort of madcap Greek chorus in the form of three black-clad Young Women (David Lovejoy, Anna Klos and Emily Nichelson). They’re joined by the Blindman (Miguel Long). The entire production is tightly blocked and choreographed by director Nicole Wiesner and dance choreographer Miguel Long. Lighting is by Richard Norwood. Original music by Danny Rockett is enhanced by the occasional guitar performance by the Waiter and songs by Young Women 1, 2 and 3, the Blindman and others. Costumes are by Rachel Sypniewski with makeup (sometimes quite dramatic) by Zsofia Otvos. Translators Chris Rzonca and Krystyna Illakowicz have adapted Różewicz’s sometimes farcical, sometimes tragic script into crisply contemporary language. Różewicz (1921-2014) is considered one of Poland’s most avant-garde and prophetic writers. He published 15 volumes of poetry and wrote more than a dozen plays and several screenplays. His work has been translated into nearly all major languages. I'm giving this production three stars because of its clever staging, direction and effective performances by the cast of nine. But I have to add a caveat: If you prefer plays with a plot line and character development, The Old Woman Broods is probably not for you. It's an example of Trap Door's adventurous work with Eastern European playwrights. I applaud them for their commitment to experimental theater, but you might not. On the other hand, if you like an occasional theater adventure, get yourself over to Cortland Street. The Old Woman Broods runs 75 minutes and has been extended through January 26 at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland St. in Bucktown. Tickets are $20-25 for performances Thursday-Saturday.

Did you enjoy this review of one of Chicago's fine storefront theaters? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
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.