Chicago Reviews

Trap Door scores again with expressionistic "White Plague"

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Chris Popio.

Trap Door Theatre, known for its avant-garde presentations of material that is, for the most part, significantly out of the mainstream, has once again put its highly idiosyncratic stamp on a rarely seen play. It’s probably safe to say that early 20th Century Czech writer Karel Capek’s anti-fascist White Plague has never been produced quite like this, and that’s one of the things that keeps people coming back to see this company’s shows: they are always inventively directed and staged, and never anything less than fascinating.

White Plague, written during Hitler’s rise to power, casts a satirically nasty eye on the notion of autocracy and dictatorship. It features an unnamed country with a powerful populist ruler called The Marshal (Marzena Bukowska) as she (he in the original) tries to concentrate her authority by waging a war of opportunity against, well, all of the rest of Europe, it seems. Since she has control over pretty much everything in her country, even what would normally be the private sector, it appears that nothing at all can stop her…until people start dying by the thousands from a mysterious disease called the White Plague that only affects those 45 and up.

The Marshal demands that her medical ministry (run by a self-aggrandizing and corrupt official named Dr. Sigelius, played by Dennis Bisto) come up with a cure, but the best Sigelius can do is administer drugs to alleviate the pain. Then a rogue doctor named Dr. Galen (Keith Surney) suddenly appears with an actual cure, but he will only dispense it to the poor, who have no influence on the country’s politics, until the Marshal declares officially that she will no longer pursue her war. Rich patients, Galen says, can only be cured once they have convinced the country to establish peace. He is demanding that they choose between having a war that will slaughter millions of young people along with a disease that will do the same to those who are older…or no war and no disease. Should be a no-brainer, right? But this is a satire on the critical political and economic necessity of war to this kind of government, and therefore nothing is that simple.

Director Nicole Wiesner has her talented ensemble (which also includes Venice Averyheart, David Lovejoy, Michael Mejia, Robin Minkens, and Emily Nichelson) explore the play and their characters using absurd contortions, voices, and movements (choreography by Miguel Long) that accentuate the insanity of what we are witnessing. Occasionally they even break into song. Nothing at all is presented here in a realistic manner; it’s all about the outrageous excesses of governments and individuals who care more for themselves than for the multitudes who are affected by their short-sighted decision-making. Naturally, it is only when they themselves are infected by the disease that any of the officials and businessmen care about doing something to end it. But only peace will appease Dr. Galen, who really holds all the cards here.

The comparisons to what is going on in our country today pretty much write themselves. Added to the obvious is the fact that the reporters here only acknowledge a story if the leaders distribute it, no matter what the truth is. Propaganda is all anyone, even the press, cares about. It’s as if the whole country’s news people work for Fox. Wiesner makes this clear through her focus on the medical aspect of the plot instead of the role of the dictator until very late in the play when the only thing remaining to discover is what motivates Bukowska’s myopic military leader. Watching her explode with outrage as she describes her country’s plight to her people—while knowing what she is not telling them—puts her right into Trump territory.

As with any production at Trap Door, don’t go into this one expecting anything you might find anywhere else in the city. But you can expect something that will entertain you, make you laugh at times, and leave you contemplating its many messages. Of course, if you are a Trap Door fan, you already know this. You won’t be at all surprised by the unusual makeup by Zsófia Ötvös and the Rachel Sypniewski costumes that would fit right in at an S&M dungeon. You’ll love the artistic lighting by Richard Norwood and the original music by Danny Rockett. You’ll admire the stark set by Michael Griggs. All of that is part of what allows Wiesner to explore her creative and unique interpretation of Pavel’s play and what makes it worth experiencing. 

White Plague is now playing at the Trap Door Theatre, Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland St, Chicago, IL, until Jan 11. The show runs approximately 100 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and

4 thoughts on “Trap Door scores again with expressionistic "White Plague"

  1. Is this actually a review of a specific play or a funny critic’s excuse to make a militant (and in certain totalitarian media way, mandatory) statement against Trump ? In a text not that long and with only 2-3 paragraphs dedicated to this specific performance, the critic “needs” to dedicate one entire paragraph to make sure every reader gets his/her (or whatever pronoun) anti-Trump message. It is funny that in that paragraph, when mentioning the role of the media, the critic needs to push the comment to FOX, as if FOX were the most expanded news channel in the USA. Visit any airport, university lounges, coffee house, etc, and you will see CNN and maybe another of its anti-Trump news allies repeating the same anti-Trump news. (Also, in many areas of the USA, FOX is not a free channel.) So that specific commentary about the Press informing only about what the leaders wants to be informed, doesn’t apply to the news in the USA (but in Communist countries: remember Chernobyl), unless those “leaders” were Pelosi and Schumer, but certainly not Trump in the USA nowadays. (Many Trump’s achievements and actions are not even reported in the CNN and its acolyte, because they are busy “informing” about gossips from porn actresses and WH anonymous employees anxious to make some bucks… For being so repetitive and empty, the opening sentence “The comparisons to what is going on in our country today pretty much write themselves”, doesn’t mean anything: it implies who-knows-what: does it imply perhaps that the booming economy of nowadays in the USA is similar to the economy of the “country” of the play? Please, critic, be specific (you get paid for that) and… make sense. Only laziness or emptiness (or common plac-“ism”) can produce such a sentence in which the critic doesn’t establish firmly the specific elements (1, 2, 3…) from the play that connect clearly with the 1,2,3 elements of the current reality. A review of this specific play should be more observant of the over-directing of this play, to the point of not letting in several cases transmit the ideas involved in the dialogues, and the decline of the whole performance at the very end (the female Marshall monologue), by letting the whole performance be concentrated in such a long scene with paradoxically (in a play so nicely inventive in many scenes) no stage direction, letting the actress practically by herself in probably not the best acting of this play. There other things from this mannierist (i think it is not exactly expressionist) staging that could be analyzed and discussed, and those issues will be more illuminating to the readers and the theater group than recurring to the common-place of “stupidizing” the readers with those “out of the blue” anti Trump empty cliches. There is — and has been — a theater and a life before, during and (will be) after Trump. Go get it.

    1. Hmmm…

      Thank you for the thoughtful feedback; though I obviously disagree with you, your opinion is no less valid than is my own. Please allow me to take a moment to respond to you.

      In the first place, the review contains six paragraphs, not 2-3, and, yes, one of them connects this production of White Plague to the many issues facing this country today, which of course are the context in which we are viewing it. You may not agree (clearly, you do not) with my specific stance about those issues, but I do not apologize for seeing things as I see them, and in fact I have never made any secret of that. We do not come into a theatre in a vacuum; whatever presses on our minds is a part of the experience, and directors (and artistic directors, who select the plays to be performed) are fully cognizant of this. Since Trap Door has a well-known reputation for presenting challenging and under-produced plays, often political in nature, it is not realistically conceivable that they are not aware of modern political connections these plays may have.

      Frankly, I was forcing myself to pull back on these comparisons by writing the line you take so negatively, “The comparisons to what is going on in our country today pretty much write themselves.” Had I wanted to focus entirely on Trump, I (a) would have written an article rather than a review, and (b) would have very specifically gone into the myriad ways in which his policies are harming this country and the fact that, like the Marshal, all he seems interested in is his own self-aggrandizement and consolidation of power. Capek intended this play to be a warning about fascism and its dangers, especially the state control of every aspect of society. In this case, he specifically references control of medicine and medical research; see our current President’s rollback of research into AIDS cures and anything at all remotely connected to the LBGTQ community. He also spends significant time exploring the manipulation of the press, a topic also not exactly foreign to the current administration. In addition, it is clear that this Marshal is a populist leader who doesn’t care at all how the rest of the world views her and places her country first no matter what the consequences.

      I could have delved into that and more but, as you noted accurately, I was writing a review of a play. Providing context is one thing; expanding upon personal political opinion is something else altogether. (BTW, your suggestion that my comment might have been referencing the “booming economy” of today’s America is so clearly disingenuous that it’s hardly worth a mention, but if I were to discuss that I could easily add exploration of the deep chasm in the play between the wealthy and the poor—-and the government’s lack of interest in the plight of anyone other than those who can line its pockets. Our economy, like Kapek’s, is only “booming” for those who are already rich.)

      Now, was the Fox comment a cheap shot? Maybe: they are extremely low-hanging fruit. But your response about CNN, echoing as it does the President’s constant criticism that they are prone to lies (which in itself is sort of hilarious, coming from someone who has been shown by independent sources to lie over twenty times a day), is fascinating. Now CNN is certainly not a completely unbiased news source these days (I’d argue that being loudly berated by the leader of the nation on such a constant basis might have something to do with that) but in no way is it as partisan as Fox, whose main personalities are no more than mouthpieces for Trumpian (I’d say GOP, but honestly I’m not even certain what that means anymore) palaver and disinformation. And your note that they are not free in some parts of the country utterly (and probably intentionally) ignores the fact that both Fox and CNN are basic cable networks.

      As to your own comments dissecting the production of the play (your final three sentences), they are truly quite focused and erudite. I don’t agree with your analysis, obviously (for example, I thought that Wiesner’s decision to leave Bukowska on stage in lighting that essentially eliminated the rest of the cast for that final monologue was a choice that allowed the entire play to boil down, as I contend that it in fact does, to the political beliefs imposed by one person on the country for her own benefit) but that’s what a review is: the opinion of the author. On my site, I make a point of reminding readers about that and suggesting that they seek other opinions as well.

      Thank you again for engaging me in this discussion. I enjoy a good debate.

      1. I WROTE: “In a text not that long and with only 2-3 paragraphs dedicated to this specific performance”. You are right: your review has 6 paragraphs BUT not all of them analyze this TRAP DOOR production, which is what I meant with the phrase “dedicated to this specific performance”:
        Paragraph 1 talks about Trap Door company in general. (INFORMATIVE paragraph)
        Paragraph 2 and 3 (DESCRIPTIVE paragraphs: they summarize the plot (pointing out that Kapek’s He-Marshall was a She-Marshal in this production -–in another Chicago note by another writer about this play, he/she/ze didn’t notice that, or maybe thought that “he” was the right pronoun, or didn’t see the production, which means that this summary can be written (and published) without even attending the actual performance!!–.
        Paragraphs 4, and 5, and the last 4.5 lines of paragraph 6 = that’s when you ANALYZE the actual Trap Door production, But PARAGRAPH 5 was the anti-Trump diatribe not clearly related to the play, but seemingly mandatory nowadays. That’s why I wrote “In a text not that long and with only 2-3 paragraphs dedicated to this specific performance”.

        I know CNN is a paid channel, but my point was that you can see it in many places for free: “Visit any airport, university lounges, etc, and you will see CNN and maybe another of its anti-Trump allies repeating the same anti-Trump news.”
        At airports; some public libraries; some libraries, cafeterias and student’s centers of public university; some coffee houses, etc., the paid-channel CNN is always for FREE, and imposed on you while you try to rest drinking some coffee or before taking a plane. (By the way, NPR is FREE, and you get the same anti-Trump CNN news there.)

        You rightfully wrote: “We do not come into a theatre in a vacuum.” Which expands to “people don’t write reviews in a vacuum”, or… anything else in our lives doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The problem is when the non-vacuum agenda is imposed (“pressed”) on the actual piece of art. I mean “imposed” when the critic doesn’t convince the reader with the proper analysis based on the following 1 and 2 aspects:
        1 – PROPER ANALOGIES; your analogy about the most expanded media in today’s USA being controlled by Trump is not correct: the most expanded and “eventually free” media like CNN, The New York Times (traditionally free at Starbucks…), NPR, etc., which are obviously anti-Trump, reflect that we are not living in a fascist/communist country.
        2 – SELF-EXPLANATORY ARGUMENTS and not “ambiguous general phases” (like your “The comparisons to what is going on in our country today pretty much write themselves”: I am not sure that your general phrase “what is going on in our country today” means in every reader what you expect it to mean, without specifying what elements of “today’s USA” are clearly connected to the play. That’s why I wrote that maybe for some readers “what is going on” means something different: in the economy, for example, beyond the simplistic 1%, and/or the very-rich/very-poor opposition that doesn’t let see the many “shades of gray” in between. It is interesting to notice Karel Capek’s comment on “generalization”: “One of the least moral gifts of human mind is the gift of generalization; instead of summarizing our experiences, it simply strives to supplant them.” Karel Capek, “Why I am not a Communist” (1924).

        As you said, when we go to a play, “whatever presses on our minds is a part of the experience”. But as a reader of your response, your attempts to make valid analogies based on these two things “that press your mind” are not clearly connected to this play: you mention “our current President’s rollback of research into AIDS cures and anything at all remotely connected to the LBGTQ community”; and the gap “between the wealthy and the poor—and the government’s lack of interest in the plight of anyone other than those who can line its pockets.” For a real analysis using a valid analogy, it is not enough to mention an item (“our current President’s rollback of research”), but to connect it properly to the play: see how it derives, almost naturally, from the plot, etc, and well, in this play, the one controlling the cure is not the Marshall-Trump, but the humanitarian / pacifist / Robin-Hood doctor. In fact, the Marshall wants to spread the cure, but he doesn’t want to accept the condition given by the doctor. He even dies of that illness. And about “the plight of the poor people”: well, the cure IN THE PLAY was only available for free to the poor people. In the play, rich and powerful people (usually those above 45, like Trump, Bushes, Clintons, Obama’s Vineyard) are dying of that disease; not even their money and power let them access the cure for themselves. As you said, some things are so “pressing” that, sometimes I would add, they don’t allow the “pressed” person to be open to what a piece of art has to offer or say beyond such a “pressure.” And therefore, the “(o)pressed” person can end up filling with himself/herself(/zeself?) the vacuum in which the play is consequently falling.

        I love TRAP DOOR theater. I try not to miss any of their interesting productions, because they break (and I applaud that) the boundaries of almost-only-anglo plays available to US audiences. I do also recommend their highly creative production of “The White Plague.”

  2. Readers, I suggest that, if you are interested in this conversation, you go to see the play yourselves and formulate your own opinions. As noted above, it runs through Jan 11 at Trap Door Theatre.

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