The White Plague follows the clash between fascism and pacifism | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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The White Plague follows the clash between fascism and pacifism

Karel Čapek's rarely produced parable feels like a timely tragedy at Trap Door.


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Nicole Wiesner directs Karel Čapek's 1937 parable (translated by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter) about the clash between fascism and pacifism. In an unnamed country the citizenry is stricken with an illness which manifests in white spots on the skin and fells anyone over 45. As panic takes over, a young doctor appears to have found a cure, but he will only treat the poor; his condition for treating the rich is that they renounce war (which the government is fomenting).

The conflict may be an oversimplified one, but in the capable hands of this ensemble it feels palpable and real. The White Plague was written in response to the rise of Hitler, so extreme statements were the order of the day, as they are today. One can easily imagine governmental and industrialist functionaries acting just like Čapek's desperate characters in order to gain advantage and save their own hides. This bleak view of humanity as a craven, zero-sum-game species wouldn't be out of place in a 2019 newspaper.

By the time the murderous marshal in charge of the war machine sees the white spots on his own skin and realizes he's done for, his deathbed agreement to lay down arms is too late to save him from the epidemic. We're not told if the doctor saves the people or lets them continue perishing. That ambiguity makes what could have been a mere apocalyptic farce into a timely tragedy for this Trap Door production.  v

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