In its three decades in Bucktown, Trap Door Theatre has been known for obscure, challenging productions, featuring avant-garde and otherworldly experiences. If you go down that narrow sidewalk next to a bar and through that black door, you can expect things to get strange. “Mamma Mia” will not be on the bill.
So it’s fitting that Trap Door opens its thirtieth season with an early play by one of the twentieth century’s kings of strange—Polish surrealist writer, artist, photographer and drug adventurer Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz.
“The Pragmatists” has a story that is nearly impossible to follow, though in Trap Door’s production, it’s mostly fun to watch. It shows a conflict between two former friends—a recluse named Plasfodor (Kevin Webb) and the arrogant Minister of Poisons, Von Telek (Keith Surney). They use other people—Plasfodor’s mute wife Mamalia (Venice Averyheart) and an androgynous maid (David Lovejoy)—in their struggles against each other. A mysterious fifth character, known as “Mummy” (Manuela Rentea) shows up with steampunk goggles to interfere and generally exude ill will.
Watching and commenting on the action are two “gendarmes,” played by Caleb Jenkins and Hannah Silverman, who instruct the audience of the rules of the play, which include that it shouldn’t be cut.
“The Pragmatists” was written in 1919, just after the end of World War I and in the middle of the flu pandemic, when it felt like the entire world was coming to pieces. Witkiewicz portrays life as a repetitive hell, with people doing absurd things over and over and making things harder for each other. Jean-Paul Sartre famously made the point in “No Exit” that “Hell is other people,” but Witkiewicz got to it first.
There is a feeling of continual unease and malice, with characters spewing wonderful insults like “You personification of the most poisonous emptiness,” “You wet nurse for incubi” and “You zombie pimp!” The most sympathetic characters, Mamalia and the maid, suffer the most, with the latter taking awful blows from cymbals mounted on a back wall.
But is it good? Well—under the direction of guest Serbian director Zeljko Djukic (from an adaptation by Adam Randelovic), Trap Door is successful at doing what it’s trying to do, which is to recreate, with humor and imagination, Witkiewicz’s surreal vision. Both the set and costume designs by Natasha Djukic (married to Zeljko) are among the cleverest you’ll see in Chicago all year. Characters pose in glass-sided booths, waiting for their time in action, as though they were boxed dolls. The gendarmes, dressed in black-and-white stripes, black aviator helmets and clown make-up, move in and out of an array of ropes that also read as prison bars.
The music by Natasha Bogojevic and sound design by Danny Rockett are also terrific, with characters amusing themselves talking into a microphone that then echoes their words in rhythmic form. All the performers are marvelous—particularly the leads, Webb and Surney, who are absolutely convincing in pursuit of something unclear.
Is “The Pragmatists” worth seeing? It’s like an odd dream, one that pokes at unfamiliar areas of the subconscious, and like a dream, it can be tedious in the telling. I confess that two-thirds into this seventy-five-minute show, the action dragged, and I found myself looking at my watch and wondering “What the heck is going on here?” But then that night, I dreamed vividly about the play.
So yes, it’s worth seeing, to shake up your sleepy brain, and see something rare and mysterious from the expansive time of Polish artistic freedom between the world wars, before the Nazi tanks rolled in, Poland fell and the despairing genius Witkiewicz took his own life.
“The Pragmatists” at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 West Cortland, through October 28. Tickets are available at trapdoortheatre.com.