I always get to shows early. I consider that to be a virtue and also very helpful in getting the vibe of a place. My early arrival habit paid off really well at the premiere of The Ugly One at Trap Door Theatre. I wandered through the adjoining restaurant–which is a rookie move–but the theater’s sidewalk sign was not put out yet. I walked through a door that looked like a closet and into a tiny lobby. I sat down on a velvet-covered church pew surrounded by candles and posters from previous productions. The lovely sounds of vocal warmups and a chorus of “happy opening night!” was the soundtrack to the vibe. This was going to be a trip and it was.
The Ugly One was written by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg and directed by Trap Door company manager Michael Mejia. Trap Door stages works that are from a different cultural sensibility—in particular German or Eastern European. The Ugly One is a mix of the Expressionist and Absurdist genres with each character distinctly drawn, and actors playing multiple roles.
The mood is set before the play begins. Alexis Daw Tyne and Juliet Kang-Huneke are sitting on the stage in various poses. Daw-Tyne plays Scheffler, a mad surgeon/artist, and is costumed in iridescent leggings and a top with straps covering the bodice like a straitjacket. Her makeup (designed by Zsófia Ötvös) is pale with the eyes very defined, and her hair is slicked back with giant spit curls gelled onto her cheeks. Kang-Huneke is dressed more sedately as Fanny but her other character of Mother is a grotesque, done with facial expressions and body movement. Daw-Tyne and Kang move about the stage as a glockenspiel plays, controlled by Lette (Dennis Bisto).
Lette is the “ugly one” in the title. He is an inventor of an industrial widget that will change the face of the industry. The problem is that his face is seen as so ugly it would turn customers off and therefore, he cannot be the face of his invention. Sheffler (David Lovejoy) is the boss who breaks the news to Lette after giving the best hotel room to Karlmann (Matty Robinson), who is a mere assistant to Lette. Lovejoy also plays Karlmann—the incestuous and demented son of Mother—brilliantly played by Kang in her other role. Robinson is delightful as the second banana with the sweet demeanor that turns on a snap into an arch and conniving corporate climber.
Bisto brings a perfect balance of desperation to be beautiful and then horrified at how he becomes a caricature of beauty. Daws-Tyne gives a new dimension to the mad scientist/surgeon/artist. Her Scheffler is maniacal and looking to conquer the world by remaking it in an image that she created.
The Ugly One is a beautiful concoction of expert direction, breakneck pacing, and biting satire. It is an indictment of the construct called beauty—which as an industry dictates an unattainable perfection. If you glance at any of the publications or watch product hawkers, you will hear terms like “obsessed” when discussing a shade of lipstick or the shape of eyebrows. Obsessed is a description of a stalker, not cosmetics. There is little room left for diversity in Von Mayenburg’s dystopian world, and being beautiful becomes a higher qualification than intellect or—gasp—individuality.
Playwright Von Mayenburg blends characters, giving them the same names as a preface to the frightening collectivism that happens in the pursuit of beauty. The surgery scenes are aurally graphic and stylized to the point that I could envision a gory operation aftermath. The spare but perfectly appointed stage design by J. Michael Griggs gives the illusion of different rooms. Be on the lookout for the voyeuristic scenes behind well-placed plexiglass and sheer black gauze.
We live in a world where people redirect their body fat to other parts they feel are lacking. Plastic surgeons are top earners in the medical field and quite often celebrities themselves. The Ugly One brings all of that beauty madness to fever pitch and it is definitely a play that you should see. Four Stars
The Ugly One is at the Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland St. in the Bucktown neighborhood. The play is 70 minutes with no intermission with shows Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm through October 29. Tickets are $25 with two-for-one admission on Thursdays. Covid protocols are proof of vaccine or negative PCR test within 72 hours. Masks are required and the house is a comfortable but snug fit, so you will want to wear one.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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