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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER REVIEW The White Plague
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-12-07

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Playwright: Karel Capek, translated by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter

At: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave. Tickets: 773-384-0494; TrapDoorTheatre.com; $20-$25 ( two for one on Thursdays ). Runs through: Jan. 11

Czech author Karel Capek ( 1890-1938 ) is one of those influential people most folks don't know.

Capek invented the word "robot" in his 1921 play, R.U.R. ( Rossum's Universal Robots ), and first conceived of sentient artificial intelligence. Lt. Commander Data, R2D2, C3PO and Alexa are among Capek's descendants. But Capek wasn't writing science fiction like Jules Verne or H. G. Wells. The intersection of science and humanity was a lens through which Capek viewed social issues, such as the dehumanizing effects of industrialization.

The White Plague similarly incorporates science for political purposes. An ardent Czech nationalist, Capek used the play—written a year before he died—to warn against Nazi totalitarianism and war frenzy. ( There's also a 1937 Czech film version. )

The story's set in a totalitarian state preparing for war, even as a deadly flesh-rotting global plague attacks people 40 and up. Young Dr. Galen ( same name as the 2nd-century Greek physician who influenced medicine until the Renaissance ) develops a cure for the fatal disease, and freely heals poor patients. He refuses, however, to share the formula with ethically dubious Prof. Sigelius—the nation's leading medical authority—or otherwise reveal it until the world renounces war. The nation's dictator, the Marshal ( an effectively strutting Marzena Bukowska ), seizes this opportunity for a pre-emptive strike against neighboring states, but then is stricken with the plague and must reluctantly agree to peace. But the Marshal's youthful followers and soldiers are unaffected by the disease. Groomed for war and wartime, how will they react?

Capek's plays hover between realism and expressionism. The White Plague is more realistic, but director Nicole Wiesner emphasizes expressionism. Rachel Sypniewski's semi-abstract all-black costumes ( timeless, ritualistic and slightly military ), Michael Griggs's pure-white abstract setting and the heavy use of silhouetted staging all are meta-theatrical devices familiar from Expressionistic films.

This new translation/adaptation may require such non-realistic presentation as it cuts volumes of earnest political and ethical dialogue, reducing the play to 75 minutes. What's left is minimum story and sketch-like scenes. For example, three debates over medical ethics between Galen ( stoic Keith Surney ) and Sigelius ( comically crafty Dennis Bisto ) are staged as a voguing competition, a bullfight and wizards casting stun spells. And Sigelius' assistants are played as robots ( in homage to R.U.R., one imagines ). The story and style reminded me of Ionesco's The Killing Game ( which ran last May at A Red Orchid )—another non-realistic play about plague and government.

Will you understand the message and story? Yes, definitely, except for the vague ending, which crucially needs to be clear. Will everyone enjoy the non-realistic style? No, probably not. A low concept interpretation might have been preferable to high concept, as few people know the play at all. Still, the well-executed production and disciplined ensemble grew on me, and I can't argue with the message.


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