IT’S ABSURD HOW AMAZING TRAP DOOR THEATRE IS…OR IS IT THE OTHER WAY AROUND?
For those of you skeptical of avant-garde theatre, I’d like to kindly direct your attention over to the Trap Door Theatre. This season has been a big one for them, with a strong slew of productions that have gotten raved by the critics who they’re able to get through the door. Please, add my name to that list—at the top, even. Emilio William’s Smartphones: A Pocket-Size Farce is the perfect cap to a remarkably strong season at the Trap Door, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite venues (if not my favorite) in the city of Chicago.
Be forewarned that this is a farce with a not-so-subtle absurdist influence, not a straightforward comedic play—although that always seems to be de rigueur at the Trap Door. Don’t expect to really know what’s going on because, well, that’s not the point. There’s really not much in the way of plot. In fact, all we know really is that there are two couples waiting for someone named Fede, who may or may not exist (and may or may not be a metaphor for the death of God, as one character points out.)
The characters are more specific than we’d see in other absurdist theatre, but seemingly representing archetypes of every day smartphone users. There’s Amelia (Geraldine Dulex), a blogosphere addicted blonde who believes everything she reads and, frankly, doesn’t know much else. She is married to Barnaby (Chris Popio), who believes you have to be a little mean to women to get what you want from them, and that there is “nothing worse than a corny slut.” This pits him directly against the formerly promiscuous Chantal (Jodi Kingsley), who believes in self-empowerment, and is so worldly that she outsources her children to China. Her overly neurotic husband, Dagobert (Antonio Brunetti), backs her in this decision, but he’s a bit whipped, so afraid of being alone that when his wife isn’t around he hugs a balloon. And then there is Maria (Mariana Leite), the deviant maid with a sly smile who drops in from time to time to muddle affairs just a bit more.
The whole cast is superb and wholly committed, without exception. Each has superb comic timing, and capture their overly-idiosyncratic personas with the just the right amount of farcical exaggeration. They are over-the-top, but they’re not over-the-top about it. Ms. Dulex’ facial expressions could single-handedly drive the show—her character looks utterly befuddled by the world outside of her smart phone, especially when white noise rings across the theatre, randomly interrupting the action. But so too could Ms. Kingsley’s deliciously pompous, judgmental snarkiness: “I only watch films with subtitles.” Having seen company member Antonio Brunetti on stage at the Trap Door more than once, it seems clear that we can expect nothing short of excellence from this actor—watching his already skittish character decompose into incontinence is hysterical.
While all the factors are present for a mediocre contemporary comedy—the dumb blonde, the slut, alcohol humor, and cell phone lingo—playwright Emilio Williams has his eye on something much grander. His play takes Sartre and Beckett head on—even the characters seem to get the idea that they’re in an absurdist play. “Don’t touch that,” they tell Dagobert, “that’s the fourth wall.” While it is consistently funny throughout, it delivers some uncomfortable blows to a social media addicted audience (myself unfortunately included). And though Williams is ambitious, it’s never out of the pretense as is so common for avant-garde work. In part because his play is self-aware and even somewhat self-critical, but in part because it doesn’t pretend to be better than it is—it just is that good. Emilio Williams has a few other things in the works to open in Chicago soon; his is a new voice worth following.
Also wearing the director hat, Williams is seriously fun, albeit rather twisted. As the audience enters the theatre, a man drinks Jack Daniels on stage while watching Ms. Dulex do a burlesque dance wearing nothing but bubble wrap. When she’s not busy thumb jiving (a la Elaine from Seinfeld), she’s seductively swinging a phone cord over head or otherwise dancing with it suggestively. Its relation to the plot, or the play? Well, there’s a phone cord. That seems to be the only connection. Then to open the play, Ms. Leite, dressed as Fede’s maid, delivers perhaps the best lip-synching session I’ve seen. Plot relevant? No, but at least she’s a character involved (peripherally) to the rest of the play. What William’s vision or intention is here, I’m not quite sure. Whatever it is, it works. They feel relevant, and they augment the absurdity of the piece.
Also worth mention is Brian Sidney Bembridge for his beautiful set design, which features a very interesting motif of silhouetted faces turned toward and away from one another—and lots of pink. Also mentionable are Richard Norwood’s lighting design, Tonette Navarro’s costume design, and Skye Fort’s very capable stage management.
Trap Door Theatre is a tiny little hole-in-the-wall theatre (you have to go down a narrow alley and through the kitchen of a restaurant to get there) that puts on stunning European avant-garde theatre and asking for surprisingly little in return. Much of the remarkably talented cast and crew of Smartphones donate both their talent and their time, taking profits not from ticket sales, but from additional audience donations. The proceeds from the bar for the night go to fund European tours for Trap Door Theatre’s work. And still, with low budgets and a demanding mission, much of what you’ll see there is better and far more cutting-edge than anything you’ll see downtown in the theatre district for triple the price. Smartphones very much included.
photos by Michal Janicki
Smartphones: A Pocket-Size Farce
At The Trap Door Theatre
scheduled to end on August 18, 2012
for tickets, call 773-384-0494 or visit http://www.trapdoortheatre.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com