Trap Door's Decomposed Theatre breaks down ideas from a longtime collaborator | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Trap Door's Decomposed Theatre breaks down ideas from a longtime collaborator 

Weirdness and wonder abound in Matei Vişniec's episodic drama, but be prepared for creepiness, too.

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click to enlarge The Meat Eater from Decomposed Theatre

The Meat Eater from Decomposed Theatre

Courtesy Trap Door Theatre

With nearly 40 actors, eight directors, and an overall roster of artists spanning five countries, Trap Door Theatre's sprawling, eight-episode streaming production of playwright Matei Vişniec’s Decomposed Theatre offers a deep dive into the drama, absurdity, tragedy, and undeniably relevant work of the contemporary Romanian-French dramatist.

Vişniec's personal history bears mentioning: With all of his work censored during the brutal lengthy regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the playwright eventually fled to France and asked for political asylum. After the dictatorship's fall with the collapse of communism in 1989, Vişniec subsequently became one of the most produced playwrights in the eastern European nation. 

The genre-spanning content is alternately confounding, frustrating, intriguing, thought-provoking, and often absurdly hilarious. Some of the segments within each episode (all translated by Jozefina Komporaly) share the same title, or very similar titles, each version a fun-house mirror reflection of the other. There are hedgehogs involved.

In other words, the epic online presentation is classic Trap Door: a raucous, politically astute exploration of humanity by an eastern European artist, filtered through an often absurdist lens. Most of the episodes (originally presented as weekly live Zoom productions between December 3, 2020, and February 4, 2021) include a talkback with the artists—which can be invaluable when unpacking the myriad ideas Vişniec plants throughout.  

Weirdness and wonder abound, starting with the first episode, The Runner & Illusionist, which takes viewers on a virtual run while we also see—via split screen—a cruise ship magician who sometimes levitates between water and sky. Directed by Katarzyna Wińska and featuring John Kahara and Michael Mejia, the piece evokes the journey of Apollo as a marathoner follows the sun, footsteps providing a percussive, relentless undercurrent toward a glowing orb getting closer and closer until it seems to fit in the runner's palm. 

The key question in the tale—what happens to a runner who literally cannot stop running, no matter how hard they try—will be relatable to anyone who has ever felt trapped on a metaphorical hamster wheel as they go about the mandatory routine of daily life. 

The second episode, The Meat Eater, has an almost lascivious feel, a carnal celebration of consumed flesh. Zachary Nicol—who designed, directed, and stars in the piece—is a phantom in a red prisonlike jumpsuit, red-gloved hands twisting a pepper grinder as if it were an archenemy’s neck, a voice-over ominously reciting a litany about meat that ends with "We’re basically flesh that devours flesh." The creepiness of the whole thing might well give you gooseflesh. 

Brainwashing is a recurring theme, arising in both episodes three, directed by Mejia and featuring four segments—The Man in the Circle, Brainwasher 1, The Man with a Cockroach, and The Beggar—and six, directed by Cristina Pronzati and featuring The Brainwasher (i) (ii), The Man in the Circle, The Runner, The Voice in the Darkness, The Animal Trainer, The Illusionist, and The Man with a Cockroach.

Over a year into a pandemic, the queries posed at the top of episode six's infomercial for brainwashing are on point: "Are you plagued with existential doubt? Are you stressed? Alienated? Do you fear old age and death?" If you don't answer yes, you're fooling yourself. 

Brainwashing as presented here is a solution on par with Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, which satirically advocates eating children as a means of ending hunger and poverty. Brainwashing, so we're told, can transform your brain from a frightening labyrinth to a streamlined hall of mirrors. Imagination and reason will remain intact, we're assured, but your soul will be emptied and purified. 

In both episodes six and seven, Vişniec looks at the walls—or circles—we all create to keep ourselves safe and sane. The trick for worldwide serenity? Each person must draw a magic circle around themselves, and never allow anyone else inside. The inference—that trouble never starts until more than one person steps into the same circle—is hard to argue with. 

With episode seven (Neema Lahon directs The Man in the Circle, The Man in the Mirror, and The Runner), we get a full, nine-square Zoom show, with every square occupied by a person going about their daily business—from brushing their teeth, to driving to work, to cleaning their homes. The common themes are both a bit depressing (truly, most of our lives are occupied with mundanities) and uplifting (we're all kind of doing the same stuff, no matter how different we are).

Self-reflection is also crucial to episode four, directed by Marian Masoliver. The Human Rubbish Bin shows people at bathroom mirrors, ruminating on whether they are, in fact, human rubbish bins. It's both a commentary on consumerism and the way a bad day (or week, or month) can feel like being pelted with the world's garbage. In the same episode, The Animal Trainer follows a soup-slurping gent who keeps a menagerie (scorpions included) in his padded room, meticulously caring for them while waiting for the grand day when he'll be devoured by universal love and perhaps literally devoured by his pets. 

The final episode includes a moving message from playwright Vişniec, who praises Trap Door for being part of a "cultural resistance," artists creating safely in the midst of a global pandemic, against great odds. The production, he says, gave him "a huge feeling of hope."  

Given the breadth and the creativity on display with Decomposed Theatre, it's hard to argue with that.   v

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  • <i>Decomposed Theatre</i>

    Decomposed Theatre (Theater & Performance)

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