What I really appreciate about Trapdoor Theatre’s latest production, “Bowie in Warsaw,” and about the company in general, is how the work gives the audience free rein to use its imagination to fill in the blanks left by the production’s absurdist nature; an attendee hoping to be spoon-fed every detail will find the Trapdoor experience exhausting and meandering. But if you want a meal made of only dessert, then go watch a Marvel movie.
“Bowie in Warsaw” is minimalist, with an entire town represented by rectangular cubes that look like rejects from a filing-cabinet factory. The costumes are uniform, blazers that look like colorful oil spills and slacks covered in shiny black sequins. The image resembles scenes from German expressionist films of the early twentieth century inhabited by residents resembling Robin Williams during his more ostentatious period. Through this minimalism, the amount of space given to the audience’s imagination is a fun test for the open-minded theatergoer.
The narrative unfolds like viewing a picture up close, then slowly stepping backwards to get the big picture. Through a series of vignettes—mostly monologues, but sometimes featuring two players, rarely more—unfold the lives of townsfolk living in a Polish town under Soviet occupation. The ostensible protagonist is Regina (Emily Nichelson) a young, educated woman with homoerotic tendencies, who rolls her eyes at her overbearing Mother (Holly Cerney). David Lovejoy does triple duty playing the David Bowie of the title, complete with silver lightning-bolt crown, lecherous mushroom farmer Mr. Koselko, and provides vocal sound effects from atop a tall platform. Jaded and dejected, Mrs. Nastka (Emily Lotspeich) spends the entire performance scrubbing the stage made to look like concrete, embellishing a fatalist tale involving angels and her alcoholic husband (“From vodka we come and to vodka we shall return!”). Several other players get moments to shine, oddballs who fill the story like pieces being added to a puzzle, with the audience having to hold the image in their mind as each piece is presented out of order.
During the vignettes, the ensemble is in near constant motion and provides background for each scene. They swish and swoop their arms like wriggling worms, react to dastardly aromas by choking and gagging and drunkenly droop over the tops of the buildings. The ensemble choreography by Miguel Long (who also performs) creates a living, breathing backdrop that reacts to the goings-on downstage and gives the viewer license to interpret the setting however they want.
Direction by Pawel Swiatek is fast-paced, making the ninety minutes feel like half the time. Polish playwright Dorota Maslowska’s writing is quirky, dark and has an ending like being dropped off a cliff.
The show is what you choose to make of it. If you are down to play along, there are a wealth of wonders for the mind’s eye to explore. If you don’t get much out of the production, it is not the fault of the actors, who deliver sharp performances without missing a beat. “Bowie in Warsaw” asks as much from the audience as it does from the performers, and don’t be surprised if you spot yourself amongst the kooky residents of this surreal town.
“Bowie in Warsaw” at Trapdoor Theatre, 1655 West Cortland. Tickets are $25 with two-for-one admission on Thursdays, trapdoortheatre.com, (773)384-0494. Through July 1.