I love small, black box, ensemble-based, Chicago style theatre. The institutional theatres are cool and all with what they present onstage and why, as well as being able to give actors, directors, crew, and staff some sort of reasonable living. But my heart is with small, black box, ensemble-based Chicago style theatre that we’ve become known worldwide for. From Second City starting in a converted Chinese laundry, to Steppenwolf starting in a suburban church basement, this style of work is in the DNA of Chicago theater.
Trap Door Theatre is a small black box theatre in Bucktown that has been around since the early 90’s, but I’ve not been there for a long time. Their theatre entrance used to be next door to a restaurant and now that restaurant has built itself around the theatre. Before entering the theatre, you had to walk through a gangway. Now, you must enter through the restaurant to get to the theatre. One plus to this is now the bathrooms are not far away from the theatre door which is so much more accessible as before one would have to walk through the gangway and then go into the restaurant and then go back the same way.
These changes aside, artistically Trap Door still does the same kind of work they always have which is ensemble based and influenced by experimental theatre, European theatre, performance art, and physical theatre. Because they don’t have a high overhead, they can present the kinds of shows that appeal to them and challenge them as much as their audience. “Joan And The Fire” fits right into their long-established oeuvre of work.
The well written play by Romanian playwright Matei Visniec, is superbly directed by longtime Trap Door vet and ensemble member Nicole Wiesner, with assistant directing by David Lovejoy, features a talented all women cast of 8 actors Carolyn Benjamin, Cat Evans, Laura Fisher, Juliet Kang Huneke, Emily Lotspeich, Emily Nichelson, Tia Pinson, Manuela Rentea. The acting style employed by Ms. Wiesner for this show is a combination of coarse acting, clowning, story theatre, and physical theatre, is very entertaining, fun and funny, as well as very alive. There’s never a dull moment onstage. With some larger theater productions, the directors make a singular point of focus, so the larger audience always knows where to see the play at any given moment. Whereas in Joan And The Fire, every actor is responding and reacting to whatever’s happening onstage from their own clown character’s point of view.
As an audience member you can watch the main moment or you can watch any of the different characters and you’ll see a different story. It’s like Hellzapoppin’ in service of social and political satire. The ensemble does a great job working together on everything in the entire production, from taking tickets at the door, to helping seating, and playing live music above the stage before the show, to moving the one set piece around, and creating their strong characters, beautiful stage pictures, and morphing from one moment to the next. The set might be small theatre, but they joyfully use every inch of it, as well as the off-stage areas too.
The play’s story tells a different version, in fact competing versions of Joan of Arc. It also points out how often after being a national hero, can later on be discarded with as much disdain as they were once applauded. The play also touches upon exploring religiosity and mental illness by having 3 actors playing Joan, separately and together. She’s such an icon, she needs to be played by three actors. There’s also the question of who controls one’s narrative, in a time of war, revolution, and after in peacetime.
The effective set was designed by J. Michael Griggs. The appropriate lighting was designed by Richard Norwood. The cool costume designs were by Rachel Sypniewski. The great makeup and hair design was by Zsofia Otvos. The well-done choreography was by Miguel Long and the fight choreography was by Bill Gordon. The fun original music score and sound design was by Danny Rockett. The play is nicely translated by Jeremy Lawrence. Cheers to stage manager Anna Klos for both her fine work and her one line of dialogue spoken from the tech booth.
When the show was done, the audience members around me were saying how much they enjoyed the play, how fun it was, and I couldn’t agree more. There are a lot of talented people who worked and are working together onstage and off to create and present this show in a small, black box theatre. This is the kind of show that a Chicago ensemble theatre can be. But because it's a small, non-Equity theatre, they are not able to pay living wages, so it was a nice touch that in the curtain speech, there was an announcement Trap Door would put out a donation jar and all of which would go fully to the actors. Because revolution or not, people still gotta eat. After the performance of this production, most audience members were pulling out some cash to donate. Well done everyone.
Joan and the Fire is playing at Trapdoor Theatre 1655 W. Cortland in Chicago until April 15, 2023. For tickets and more information go to https://trapdoortheatre.com/joan-and-the-fire/
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