Absurdity means different things to different people. To some, it means goofy, cartoonish and juvenile; to others, it is a nihilistic philosophy that abandons hope and embraces the pointlessness of life. In Trap Door Theatre’s latest production, we get both.
“Princess Ivona” is an absurd satire by twentieth-century Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz and directed by Spanish director Jenny Beacraft. Taking place in Trap Door’s speakeasy-style theater, this latest production continues the company’s twenty-two year legacy of presenting works in the style of “grassroots, avant-garde expressionism.”
Regal figures loaf around the stage pre-performance, dressed in formal wear of jewel-toned crushed velvet and furs. Their faces are outlined with bold colors reminiscent of the self-portraits of Van Gogh. Queen Margaret (Manuela Rentea) sits quietly reading a book. Lord Chamberlain (Kevin Webb) anxiously fidgets with his gloves. King Ignatius (Bill Gordon) performs calisthenic stretches before brandishing a long knife, whipping it around. In the corner, Prince Phillip (Keith Surney) broods patiently.
The story observes Phillip taking, not finding, for himself a comely wife. Enter Ivona (Laura Nelson), a mute, feral woman offered as a favor by her two guardians. Wie she has no royal blood or dowry to speak of, Prince Phillip decides to marry her anyway. But all attempts to mold Ivona into a coquettish object of affection are mostly in vain and elicit only the faintest of peeps and the briefest of curtsies.
The family of royals are driven to madness by Ivona’s persistent silence. “Raga ga gah!” shouts King Ignatius before launching into a dark remembrance of a time he forced himself on a woman. Queen Margaret composes sultry erotic poetry. Phillip’s friend Simon (Gus Thomas) accidentally spills his cocaine and snorts it off the ground. If the movie “Scarface” was a sitcom, these could be his wacky neighbors.
The buffoonery of the bourgeoisie and passivity of the proletariat protagonist is an obvious surface-level critique of class conflict and oppressive hierarchies. The social commentary goes from an aggressive nudge to a slap in the face in a scene where, like a fever dream, flashing lights illuminate historically oppressed figures—a woman in chains, the Jewish prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp, Jesus—who run across and around the stage. The play is not bashful about heavy-handed metaphors.
Beacraft keeps the cast moving, using the larger-than-life characters to fill every inch of the stage, which is bare except for a few props and crates. Colorful, regal costumes by Rachel Sypniewski accurately fits the Saturday morning cartoon vibe. Sparkling embellishments of facial bone structure designed by make-up artist Syd Genco makes the actors look like moving paintings. Original music by Przemys?aw Bosak sounds like it was composed for toddlers on an old Casio keyboard.
In “Princess Ivona,” there is no hope. Not for the title character nor her royal antagonists. Don’t expect the good guys to win—there are no good guys! It’s the absurd wrapped in a colorful candy shell. But this is by design. Abandoning hope allows the true message to sink in, that of confronting the lust, greed, vice and corruption within the existing value system. In this regard, “Princess Ivona” is successful.
“Princess Ivona” at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 West Cortland. $25 with two-for-one admission on Thursday, trapdoortheatre.com. Through February 19.