Review: In Trap Door’s Dark Comedy, Bowie in Warsaw, a Strangler Prowls the City But the Starman Is Present Only in Spirit

Bowie in Warsaw isn’t really a play for David Bowie fans but it is an example of Trap Door Theatre’s ability to stage the work of Eastern European playwrights with Chicago style and its own peculiar brand of eccentricity. The play by Polish playwright Dorota Maslowska is set in 1970 Warsaw, where fear has set in among the female population because of a “lady strangler” who prowls the city seeking victims. Visiting director Pawel Świątek creates a setting that’s far different than described in Maslowska’s script, but captures the mood of anxiety in Soviet-era Poland. Despite the horrors of the era and the continuing fear about the “lady strangler,” Bowie in Warsaw is a dark comedy that will puzzle and delight you.

A constant presence on stage before and throughout the play (she even may be a meme, in current argot) is Mrs. Nastka (Emily Lotspeich) on her hands and knees. Scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing the floor. Occasionally she gets to her feet for a monologue about her husband, his vodka consumption and other excesses. Then she resumes her scrubbing. Is she removing symbolic dirt—the residue of Communist rule and even the Nazi atrocities of the Polish ghetto and camps in World War II? Or is it just—dirt?

Emily Nichelson and Laura Nelson. Photo by Krzysztof Babiracki.

Maslowska’s style of storytelling is disjointed, to say the least, and Bowie in Warsaw keeps its eight actors on stage at all times as scenes move through the story of Regina (Emily Nichelson), a young women just learning about and experiencing life. Her mother (Holly Cerney) shares some of these scenes, as does Regina’s worldly friend Bogumila (Laura Nelson). The scene where Bogumila gives Regina some sex education is one of the comic highlights of the play. The ninth actor, David Lovejoy, lurks in a loft above the stage for the first half of the play, arriving to portray Mr. Kozelko, a businessman, and possibly, the spirit of David Bowie. 

Other scenes portray Regina’s job interview with the director (Bob Wilson) and Detective Wojciech’s (Keith Surney) work to document the killings. Mushrooms and a certain piece of furniture also play a part in this rambling discourse. 

Świątek’s direction is just what is needed for this fast-paced story with its many threads. The cast is excellent and Rachel Sypniewski’s colorful costumes—including the deep pink square-heeled boots that all the actors wear—create visual excitement on the severely designed set (by Merje Veski). The new translation of Bowie in Warsaw, commissioned by Trap Door, is by Soren Gauger. 

Keith Surney as the detective and Tia Pinson as his wife. Photo by Krzysztof Babiracki.

David Bowie did visit Warsaw twice during the time he lived in Berlin (1976-79). Both visits were very brief. In April 1976 he was on a train en route from Zurich to Moscow and the train stopped for repairs at the Warszawa Gdańska Train Station. With time to kill, Bowie took a walk around Warsaw, stopping to shop for music in a shop near the Paris Commune Square. He spent about two hours in Warsaw; the visit was commemorated in a mural placed on a building in 2016, the year of his death. Here’s a video about Bowie’s visit to Warsaw. He later composed a mostly instrumental song titled “Warszawa” with Brian Eno; the song was released in 1977 on the album Low.

Maslowska published her first novel (Snow White and Russian Red) in 2002 when she was 19; she was an instant literary sensation in her native Poland. Trap Door has staged two of her plays: A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians in 2009 and No Matter How Hard We Try in 2016. She has published two other novels and released a music album that’s a blend of punk, rock and dance music with lyrics addressing social issues. 

Trap Door will present Bowie in Warsaw in New York and New Jersey in June. The performances will be Friday-Saturday, June 2-3, at Bohemian National Hall in New York and Sunday, June 4, at the Jersey City Theater Center.

Bowie in Warsaw at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland, continues through July 1. Performances are Thursday-Saturday, except there will be no performances in Chicago on June 1-3. Tickets are $25 with two-for-one admission on Thursdays. Running  time is 90 minutes with no intermission. 

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