- Angela Allyn
Social commentary is a load of laughs at Trap Door Theatre
Chicago’s theater reputation is built in funky little spaces where daring work pushes boundaries and immerses audiences in ideas that are at once uncomfortable and exhilarating. Trap Door Theatre’s practically claustrophobic black box space hidden down a gangway is one of those places where a small but open hearted audience can be transformed by what happens a few feet from them. Their most recent offering, a translation of Witold Gombrowicz’s 1938 comedy Princess Ivona continues their tradition of offering significant works by European playwrights. Usually titled Ivona, Princess of Burgundy, it is meant to be a Shakespearean parody.
A mostly mute girl is plucked from obscurity and an abusive home when the Prince of the land impulsively decides to marry her. Her existence brings out the worst in the Royals and the Court and, spoiler alert, she is killed during a banquet in her honor. Make no mistake: this is a disturbing play. Director Jenny Beacraft has chosen a winsome and engaging Ivona with the expressive Laura Nelson, despite the script calling for an ugly girl. This gives the observer much more empathy for her plight. She is objectified and used by everyone around her, in part because, at least in this rendering, she will not speak for herself except when absolutely driven so far past her boundaries she delivers a word, a single statement. Thus the story becomes an indictment of the patriarchy, an indictment of the carelessness of the very privileged and a warning about the deadly nature of misogyny. But this realization won’t really wash over you until you are on the way home because of the skill and all-in performance of this amazing ensemble of actors. Keith who plays Prince Phillip is virile, impulsive and likable, and yet he is cruel and immature which, in the powerful, often leads to deadly consequences. He is aided and abetted and egged on by his companion Simon played with lecherous malevolence by Gus Thomas. Bill Gordon’s King Ignatius most clearly references Commedia dell’Arte with his blustery king, no more adult than his son and more set in his vices. Kevin Webb as Lord Chamberlain delivers a masterful performance of an arch toady who camouflages his brilliance and manipulates his superiors into becoming their darker selves. Manuela Rentea gives a tour de force performance as Queen Margaret, who has been co-opted by the same misogynistic system that will kill Ivona, but like the Jewish prison guards in the Nazi death camps has become the perfect oppressor. Rentea's ability to render pure emotion with no filters is astonishing to behold. And have I not mentioned this cast is hysterically funny? With drop dead hilarity and perfect comic timing you will watch this horrific tale and laugh all the way along, which is another indictment–this one of our own complicity in the systems of oppression that we participate in every day.
Trap Door delivers a substantial piece of theater that is at once pungent social commentary and delightful entertainment. Princess Ivona runs Thursdays,Fridays and Saturdays through February 18th 2023 at the Trap Door Theatre at 1655 West Cortland Street in Chicago. For tickets and information go to https://trapdoortheatre.com/event/princess-ivona/