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The Old Woman Broods
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-12-19

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Playwright: Tadeusz Rozewicz

At: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave. Tickets: TrapdoorTheatre.com; 773-384-0494; $20-$25. Runs through: Jan. 19

Early in our play, the Old Woman referenced in the title complains about the "dregs" muddying the bottom of her teacup. On the page, Polish playwright Tadeusz Rozewicz' splenetic 1969 diatribe—translated in 2004 by Chris Rzonca and Krystyna Illakowicz—comes off as the dregs of Absurdist Theater, the post-World War II literary movement once much-imitated, but nowadays a quaint relic of midcentury irreverence.

The criticism invoked by Rozewicz begins hopefully enough, its premise based in a pun on "brood"—wordplay explaining the Old Woman's lament for females of her generation whose sole activities, like those of biddy hens, were restricted to "eating and having babies" but who now find their status usurped by youthful "whores" luxuriating in the childlessness provided by contraceptive devices. The story's setting in a society oblivious to creeping ecological decay also resonates in 2018. Before long, however, the targets of Rozewicz's rancor give way to the familiar mid-20th-century villains—war, bureaucracy, quack medicine, police brutality, bourgeois complacency and self-conscious vulgar language.

Fortunately, Trap Door director Nicole Weisner and her ensemble know better than to rely on these threadbare grumbles to pique their audiences' curiosity. Instead, they augment their performance energy levels with generous infusions of kinetic, musical and slam-style poetic motifs designed to render its spectacle entertaining, if past enlightening.

For starters, the elaborate stage directions in the trimmed-down text are recited by an earnest young writer ( a stand-in for the author, perhaps ), while a trio of gender-fluid damsels whose identity, in the original script, is not revealed until the final moments, are now seen plying their weird-sister trade as we enter the auditorium. When the Old Woman proclaims men to be "stupid as bulls," she and her swains re-enact a skirmish in a corrida, and an interlude conceived as a chaotic collage of overlapping commentary includes a confessional soliloquey silenced by a scornful "This isn't Steppenwolf!"

Manuela Rentea commands the room in the role of the Old Woman, who charms us with her candor, exuberance and tropical-hued fiesta gown, along with a company of actors well-versed in non-representational expression, enabling them to remain always in full control of their relative positions throughout Trap Door's barnlike interior. The results transform what could have emerged a desiccated academic exercise into a vibrant carnival of swirling colors and textures.


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