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When Nothing Is Everything

The challenges of dramatizing an hour in the life of a woman with no reason to live.

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Request Programme

Trap Door Theatre

The early "supernaturalistic" one-acts of German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz are full of mundane actions that unfold in real time: eating, reading, washing dishes, taking showers, using the bathroom, masturbating. This antitheatrical approach, which borrows from the American Fluxus movement and Austrian actionism, can push the limits of anyone's patience. When Kroetz's first play opened in Munich in April 1970, the audience had such a violent reaction the theater was put under police protection.

Kroetz's one-woman Request Programme may be even more likely to work an audience's last nerve now than it was in its 1971 premiere. Miss Rasch, a factory worker in her early 40s, comes home to her apartment and, without saying a word, goes through her nightly routine: changing clothes, watching TV, making dinner, checking the radiator for heat, inspecting troublesome pimples, reading the mail, taking a shit, doing needlework, smoking cigarettes, staring into space, getting ready for bed. Essentially Kroetz's script is an extended, obsessively detailed stage direction, which he says should be performed in real time, approximately an hour. "From the sideboard she gets a glass, pours in some fruit juice, and tops it off with water. She puts the glass with the other things on the table. The fruit juice she returns immediately to the fridge. Then she sits down and begins to eat." Still, he insists that the play should not provoke or bore the audience--and by carefully detailing an uneventful hour in an apparently uneventful life, he does dramatize the psychology of despair, which ultimately drives Miss Rasch to make the most momentous decision of her life.

Like other pieces Trap Door Theatre has produced, Request Programme is a difficult work by a seminal European playwright largely ignored in America (in Germany, by contrast, only three years after his debut Kroetz was the country's most produced living playwright). In this staging by artistic director Beata Pilch, Carolyn Shoemaker gives Miss Rasch a placid schlumpiness--which doesn't prevent key moments of harrowing anguish from cracking through late in the evening. When she groans like a beast while sitting on the toilet, for example, it's clear that her life is as painful as her bowel movement.

Too often, however, Pilch and Shoemaker overdramatize Miss Rasch's behavior. When she spies dirt on the window sill, she scrubs it vigorously for a few seconds, inspects, scrubs again, inspects, scrubs one last time. This subtle clowning is a Trap Door hallmark, but hereit's only intermittent. Most of Shoemaker's gestures feel incomplete, both tentative and rushed. She may intend her unsettled air to convey her character's underlying anxiety, but frequently she seems merely mindful that she's being observed, "acting like" she's doing the things she's supposed to be really doing--smoking only a few centimeters of each cigarette she lights, for example. Feeling uncommitted, her actions neither reveal nor conceal the character's inner life but simply sidestep it. And without a compelling inner life for the audience to glean, Miss Rasch merely idles.

The meticulous detail of Kroetz's script certainly invites physical comedy and other nonnaturalistic approaches. A 1982 Venezuelan production, set in a subterranean boiler room, split the role of Miss Rasch between two actresses whofinished each other's gestures. When choreographer Shirley Mordine performed and Catherine Slade directed the play here in 1993, they turned it into a kind of live radio broadcast, with other performers providing the sound effects. But Trap Door's production hovers awkwardly between supernaturalism and stylization, never settling convincingly into either genre. As a result this nearly two-hour performance feels fussy and overly deliberate.

Ultimately Pilch and Shoemaker give short shrift to the routine aspects of Miss Rasch's evening: instead of just going through the motions, she seems to be continually discovering her choices, whether to wash a stocking or scrub a plate. This creates the expectation that each new action will deliver a theatrical payoff. But it's the deadening sameness of her routine that gives the action poignancy. Nothing can pay off for Miss Rasch in any way, which is what forces the tragic conclusion.

When: Through 7/29: Thu-Sat 8 PM

Where: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland

Price: $15, two for one Thu

Info: 773-384-0494

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carolyn Shoemaker.

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