Review: Nana at Trap Door Theatre Reimagines Zola’s Tale of Sexual and Financial Greed

The production is a visual spectacle. Ten actors in colorful, period costumes and stylized makeup perform on the tiny stage, which is tricked out with a more elaborate set design than one usually sees here.

The play is Nana, about a 19th century up-from-the-gutters courtesan turned Paris stage star, and the object of slavering desire of many wealthy men. Olwen Wymark’s play, a story of sexual and financial greed, is adapted from Emile Zola’s 1880 novel, and it’s on stage now at Trap Door Theatre. Miguel Long and Nicole Weisner direct this highly physical, comic production. (Choreography by Miguel Long, set design by Merje Veski, costumes by Rachel Sypniewski, makeup by Zsófia Ötvös.)

The time is 1867, at the beginning of the famous Paris Universelle Exposition and prefiguring the end of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War. At the end of the play, the crowd is cheering "To Berlin! To Berlin!" (The war was a tragedy for France and brought about the end of the Second Empire.)

Dan Cobbler, Maryam Abdi, Caleb Lee Jenkins. Photo by Chris Popio.

As the play opens, there’s great anticipation for the first appearance of Nana at the Théâtre des Variétés (renamed Trap Door Theatre). Bordenave (David Lovejoy), a rich industrialist and theater owner, is entertaining friends and theater fans Fauchery (Dan Cobbler), Georges  (Beck Damron), and Count Muffat (Eddy Karch). Some ladies of the street (Emily  Nichelson and Emily Lotspeich) also are part of this scene and many others. Finally, Nana (Maryam Abdi) makes a flamboyant entrance to the delight of her fans. 

The next day, although her maid Zoe (Lotspeich) reads rave reviews about her performance, Nana is in despair; she is faced with many creditors and no money to pay them. Her aunt, Madame Lerat (Tia Pinson) visits and takes Nana’s infant son home with her. (That baby gets some rough handling throughout the play.) 

Nana decides to move to the country, which she finds delightful for a while. One of her lovers—Steiner (Lovejoy)—has bought her a house. But his fortune disappears, as he sells his steelworks and spends all his money on Nana. And thus lust for Nana destroys all her admirers and brings them to bitter, bankrupt ends. Nana herself suffers a tragic end.

Dan Cobbler, Emily Nichelson, Emily Lotspeich. Photo by Chris Popio.

The directors do an excellent job of pacing and blocking this madcap production. Nana includes song interludes and some spirited dances including a cancan and three men bound together for a three-legged dance. 

Actors are on stage at all times; when they are not in a scene, they stand in front  of  makeup mirrors, backs to the audience.  Cast members (except for Nana) all play multiple roles and these switches are quickly made from costume pieces at one side of the stage. 

Among the cast of mostly Trap Door company members, we should note a few newer actors. Beck Damron, in his Trap Door debut, plays Georges with gleeful acrobatics; and Amber Washington plays Sabine and other roles with charm. Caleb Lee Jenkins, the newest company member, plays Fanton with a certain evil joie de vivre. Dan Cobbler also makes his Trap Door debut and shows his versatility playing several characters. 

Other creative credits go to Richard Norwood for lighting design and Danny Rockett for music composition and sound design. Kayci Johnston is stage manager.

Emile Zola’s novel Nana is part of his 20-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, which includes about half of his life’s work. A playwright friend took him to see an operetta at the Théâtre des Variétés and also regaled him with stories about famous prostitutes. Zola drew on these experiences to create Nana, which was an immediate success. You can buy Nana here or from your favorite bookseller. 

Nana continues through May 19 at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave. Running time is 110 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8pm. You can buy tickets for $30 (2-for-1 admission on Thursdays) and get more information at trapdoortheatre.com

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

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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.