By Valerie Jean Johnson
The name Copi is synonymous to most Europeans with the Abusurdist movement of the mid-twentieth century, and Chicago’s Trap Door Theatre began its love affair with the Argentinean-born playwright over a decade ago, when Artistic Director Beata Pilch embarked on a two-month theater-research trip to Paris, funded by the French embassy. I caught up with Pilch during a rare break in her preparation for the opening of Trap Door’s latest Copi production, “Eva Peron,” and she spoke about discovering the work of this prominent figure. “[In Paris] I saw all this avant-garde work that isn’t seen in America…[including] a Copi play, actually the first [of his plays] that we produced, called ‘The Homosexual,’ or ‘The Difficulty of Sexpressing Onself.’ I fell in love with that production and thought it was perfect for Trap Door, because of our mission [to produce] rare, obscure European work. I did a production of that show here [in 2000], also funded by the French embassy. Now, ten years [after first encountering Copi], we still have such a great relationship with the French embassy, and they came to us this year hoping we were going to do a French piece. I had proposed this to them awhile ago, so it all matched up, and that’s why we’re doing it now.”
It’s the cultivation of such lasting artistic relationships, coupled with a willful determination to produce challenging, underrepresented theater by any means necessary, which have kept Trap Door going strong as a respected and innovative Chicago storefront theatre staple for nearly fifteen years. “Eva Peron,” part of the company’s season “focused on female revolutionaries,” is a darkly comic, dreamlike imagination of the volatile political figure’s final hours (see separate review in listings), which, when it first premiered in Paris in 1969, brought a mob of angry Peronists storming into the theater, trashing the set, releasing stink bombs and attacking the performers and spectators in an effort to stop the production. Radically inventive in his own lifetime and beyond, Copi, like so many other highly influential and regarded theater artists of the European avant-garde, hasn’t really gotten his dues stateside, something that Pilch has made it her mission to change.
“That movement happened decades ago, and I’m just perplexed as to why we are not open to this kind of material in the United States, or why we are not even taught it at our fancy universities,” she says. “This is old material. Copi was [writing] in the late fifties and sixties. Everybody in France knows [him], his work is almost considered classic.”
Pilch began her theater career as an actor, but knew early on that she had no interest in squeezing into the accepted design of contemporary American commercial theater. “I never wanted to be an actor that goes from theater to theater, just doing random projects and not have my own voice…I think that was the artistic director in me being born to guide my own choices in material that I wish to spend my time and life working on, as opposed to doing the same plays [that you see] playing in three different theaters, every year, all across the country. I’ve been able to perform in over ninety shows at Trap Door that I would never be able to do anywhere else, unless I moved to Europe. And that excites me; [but] to do a play that I already learned in college or high school, that really doesn’t excite me at all.”
Pilch’s fiery enthusiasm for the experimental has attracted a slew of loyal collaborators, many who, even though they may have moved on to more financially lucrative careers in the industry, return to Trap Door time and again for the opportunity to perform roles that they wouldn’t get to explore anywhere else—and in a performance space that is as reflective of the company’s vision as the plays they produce.
“The name came before the building, which I think is just magic, because we have three trap doors in here, a huge basement, people are coming in through the ceiling, coming up through the ground, we’re nestled behind two buildings, with this long gangway, and we now have a new restaurant door in front of us, so Trap Door is really a trap door…[it’s something] immediately theatrical, in that you could fall into one, or someone could pop out and grab you. I want people to come in feeling like they’re doing something naughty, or know a secret that nobody else knows about.”
Eva Peron at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 West Cortland, (773)384-0494. This production is now closed.