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 attheatreinchicago.com.