Review: Trap Door Stages Princess Ivona, a Political Satire and a Theatrical Carnival

Princess Ivona inspires Trap Door Theatre to show us what it does best: Take a clever script and turn it into a carnival with exaggerated style and physical performance, while remaining true to the playwright’s original concept. In this case, Jenny Beacraft directs playwright Witold Gombrowicz’s 1935 tragicomedy, an anti-nationalist satire on class and identity, and embellishes it with an exuberant use of props, costumes and makeup. Beacraft, who grew up in Chicago, is now based in Barcelona; she has participated in several Trap Door international productions.

The play opens with a “promenade,” Trap Door’s stylized pre-show show. Members of the royal family—King Ignatius (Bill Gordon), Queen Margaret (Manuela Rentea), Prince Phillip (Keith Surney) and the ubiquitous Lord Chamberlain (Kevin Webb)—engage in various poses and activities on a silent stage. The king amuses us with his knife work and exercises such as lunges and partially successful seated stretches.

The story revolves around a silent young woman named Ivona (Laura Nelson), whom the crown prince decides he loves (or pretends to love) and will marry—until he changes his mind and chooses another fiancée.

Manuela Rentea as Queen Margaret. Photo by J. Michael Griggs.

This love story begins as Phillip and his very hip friend Simon (Gus Thomas) survey the city scene. Philip announces, “…while the presence of my father inspires the hearts of our loyal men, I am here to inspire delicious dreams in the hearts of our ladies ….” But while Simon picks out the prettiest passersby, Phillip ponders his horoscope for a favorable moment. Ivona appears with two aunts who urge her to smile more and try to be attractive. Phillip is inspired; Ivona is silent.

This matter of state throws the royal parents and the Lord Chamberlain into a frenzy. Webb’s Lord Chamberlain is a dapper man in motion, always with the court’s well-being his mission. He signals his moods by frantically and fastidiously changing his gloves. From gray to black to red to blue to green and more. (Webb also performed “powerhouse vocals” in his starring role as the barber in Kokandy’s recent production of Sweeney Todd.)

Queen Margaret performs an emotional monologue, partly in verse, late in the play that received a well-deserved round of applause. The queen, despairing of her son’s marital intentions and seeing a resemblance between his fiancée and herself, talks of poison and decides she must get disheveled and solve the problem. “I can’t look my ordinary self when I am about to do murder. I must change, get my hair disheveled at least, not too much, nothing ostentatious, just enough to effect a change.” She uses a picture frame (one of the omnipresent  props) as a mirror to change her look.

Laura Nelson as Ivona. Photo by J. Michael Griggs.

That picture frame is always part of the tableau when the family retainer, Checkers (Bob Wilson), arrives with camera to immortalize a moment.  

Beacraft uses Trap Door’s tiny stage to choreograph the nine actors and 80 minutes of Princess Ivona, with almost no scenery and many on-stage costume changes. Costumes by Rachel Sypniewski, makeup by Syd Genco. Cast members play multiple roles and this doubling is facilitated by costume pieces and accessories in trunks of various sizes, which become furniture as well as costume repositories. Set design is by J. Michael Griggs and lighting by Richard Norwood. Original music and sound design by Przemyslaw Bosak. Tyler Hughes is stage manager.

Gombrowicz’s script was translated by Krystyna Griffith-Jones and Catherine Robins. Gombrowicz was best known for absurdist satires likes his 1937 novel Ferdydurke. His work was banned by the Nazis, the Stalinists and the Polish government. Gombrowicz, who died in 1969, lived in Argentina in voluntary exile for 24 years and returned to Europe in 1963 to live in Paris.

Princess Ivona continues at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave., through February 19 with performances Thursday-Saturday at 8pm. Performances have been added at 7pm on Sundays now through February 19. Tickets are $25 with two-for-one admission on Thursday. Buy tickets here: https://trapdoor.ticketleap.com/princess-ivona/.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop
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 nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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