Since 2011 Smyra Yawn has worked as a stage manager, production manager, business manager and teacher in Chicago. She enjoys also coffee and gardening.
Tiffany Bedwell. Photo by Michal Janicki.
Review: NO MATTER HOW HARD WE TRY at Trap Door Theatre
By Smyra Yawn
NO MATTER HOW HARD WE TRY is staged exactly where it should be. Wedged behind a tiny door at the end of a dark alleyway, Trap Door Theatre’s space perfectly suits this absurd portrait of drab and depressing life in Poland after World War II. Joanna Iwanicka’s set, a single dull, monochromatic room flanked by electric blue refuse (think Sin City, but five feet away from you) spills ever so slightly into the audience. You’re simultaneously in the room and observing it. A tiny, glowing TV screen sitting downstage center faces the stage, muddling the notion of who is watching whom.
The audience enters upon Emily Nichelson—playing a restless young Polish girl staving off boredom any way she can—pacing, staring out the window and stacking empty yogurt cups on her grandmother sleeping in a wheelchair nearby. We are introduced to her mother Halina, played by Tiffany Bedwell and their neighbor Bozena played by Beata Pilch. For the first third of the play these women (existing some time after World War II) bitterly, and often crassly, discuss their bleak existence while the grandmother—played with perfect comical frailty by Marzena Burkowska—revels in her one warm memory of Poland before the war. While the Gloomy Old Biddy (as she is billed) frames her misery in terms of How Thing Used To Be, the three younger women see themselves in terms of what magazines and TV tell them they are missing. Indeed, it is the only way they seem able to communicate: they speak to each other in singsongy tones about the delicious dinners they won’t have, the beautifully Ikea-decorated apartment they don’t live in and the luxurious vacations they’ll never take. “Go to your lack of a room!” the mother yells to the daughter. It perfectly captures that strange Eastern European tradition of taking pride in one’s suffering. It even becomes a source of humor and temporary escape for the women, though it never lasts. Over and over, they return to the inescapable gloominess of their reality.
Just when the back and forth of these trapped women starts to become a little too repetitious, the set is invaded by a series of outsiders decked in Rachel M. Sypniewski’s sleek and colorful costumes placing them decidedly outside of the world we’ve seen so far. The plot becomes muddled, and the play coasts through a series of images and ideas as the young girl watches these outsiders through her TV. First, a male filmmaker, played by Michael Garvey, bursts in and describes his Oscar-baiting tearjerker of a film about life in Poland. He’s taken the story of these sad women’s live and is selling it right back to them. Kelsey Shipley as a perfectly quaffed TV host interviews one of the film’s actors, played by Johnny Graff, who simply can’t contain the fact that despite his success, he is also miserable. Simina Contras’ turn as a wealthy woman who sees the film may be the highlight of the whole show. Covered in furs, dripping with diamonds, and mascara streaking down her cheeks—she is wrought with sadness for the people in poor, war-torn Poland, but stops just short of really wanting to do anything about it. Throughout, we watch Nichelson’s young girl struggle to figure out who she is in relation to these images, her mother, her grandmother and to the tragedies that shaped her country.
If Trap Door truly wants to produce challenging work, they’ve hit the nail on the head. This play bubbles over with ideas—national identity, beauty standards, ineffectual liberal guilt, the commodifying forces of the West—sometimes far too many to coalesce into something that is also emotionally impactful. It is hard to discern between archetypes representing an idea and the characters we’re supposed to care about. Perhaps this is just the form reflecting the content: the idea that the Polish identity is at times confused and confusing. However, to skip this show would be to miss some truly lovely performances from a talented ensemble.
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