Review: Should We Fear Disease or Demagogues in Trap Door’s The White Plague?

David Lovejoy and Venice Averyheart. Photo by Chris Popio.

The White Plague or a new form of leprosy is what everyone fears in the new play at Trap Door Theatre. However, the disease described in Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s 1937 play is probably the more feared disease of fascism, then on the rise in Europe. With slick direction by Nicole Weisner, tube Trap Door troupe worries through 80 minutes of family trauma and war preparation. Like most Trap Door productions, this one is smartly choreographed (design by Miguel Long), costumed (design by Rachel Sypniewski) and made up (design by Zsófia Ötvös).

Professor Sigelius (Dennis Bisto) runs a clinic where he treats the wealthy suffering from the white plague—which he calls the Peking Leprosy. The disease mainly strikes those 45 or older. The first sign is a patch of white on the body. But there’s no cure, just ointments that counteract the stench that starts when the wounds open. After that, it’s only morphine.

A possible savior arrives. Dr. Galen (Keith Surney), from a clinic that treats the poor, has a vaccine to cure the plague. He has had success with it at his own clinic, curing about 60 percent of the sick patients. He wants to try it on Sigelius’ patients as a further clinical test. But Sigelius will only agree if Galen will turn over his formula so that Sigelius can test it. Galen refuses. Finally, Sigelius agrees to let Galen try it on patients in the slum ward.

Marzena Bukowska. Photo by Chris Popio.

Meanwhile everyday people fear the plague. Mother (Robin Minkens) and Father (Michael Mejia) and their children worry about their future. Are there any white spots yet?

The government is interested too and an official delegation visits Sigelius’ clinic. The Marshal (leather-clad Marzena Bukowska) congratulates Sigelius for the seemingly miraculous cure that the vaccine has brought about. However, Dr. Galen announces that the vaccine is his alone and he will not release it to any patients but the poor unless the Marshal and the military forces renounce war. No peace, no vaccine.

Father, who has just been named head of accounts for Krug’s factories, reads in the paper that the doctor with the vaccine cure won’t release it unless war is stopped. “What do we spend millions on arms for? Peace? Shut down Krug’s factories and throw two hundred thousand out of work? It’s criminal to talk peace now! Throw him in jail!”

Photo by Chris Popio.

Sigelius’ solution to the plague, which he announces to Baron Krug (Minkens) is camps. “Each new sufferer helps spread the disease. So all those with the white spot will be sent off to camps…. Anyone who attempts to escape will be shot.”

Meanwhile the Marshal carries on the war effort with a ferocious and only slightly overplayed performance at a rally to galvanize the populace to support the war.

Robin Minkens and Michael Mejia. Photo by Chris Popio.

The flow of the story is sometimes hard to follow, possibly because the Trap Door adaptation (from the translation by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter) is abbreviated to fit the one-act format. But the cast of eight all perform their multiple characters with ease. Other cast members not mentioned above are David Lovejoy, Emily Nichelson and Venice Averyheart. They all wear a variety of black costumes with divided skirts, blousy trousers or tights and fitted tops, scarves and jewelry with a steampunk look. The set design by Michael Griggs features a bare stage platform backed by a wall of alternating solids and translucent fabric panels. The actors are on stage at all times, but sometimes lurk behind the curtains in semi-presence. The effective lighting design is by Richard Norwood with sound design and original music by Danny Rockett.

Playwright Čapek was a foe of communism as well as fascism and this 1937 play was a colorful parable about the rise of Nazism. Čapek is best known for his science fiction writing; his greatest claim to fame today is having devised the word “robot” as part of his 1920 play  R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). He died on Christmas day 1938 at the age of 48 after suffering from a lung disease. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia a few months later, they came to arrest him at the family home in Prague and arrested his wife Olga instead. His brother Josef was arrested later and sent to Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

The White Plague has been extended and continues at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland in Bucktown, through January 25. Performances are at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $20-$25 with two-for-one tickets on Thursdays. No performance on Thursday, December 26, but there will be an extra one on Wednesday, January 8.

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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.