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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, March 1

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Theatre Sun Feb 07 2010

Avant-Garde in Chicago: Trap Door and Oracle Produce the Rarely Produced

I've often heard it said that Chicago's theatre scene lacks a strong avant-garde presence, that it can play things too safe, too simple. It's true that Chicago doesn't boast companies as committed to the radical avant-garde experiments of New York's Wooster Group or Richard Foreman's complex Ontological-Hysteric Theater, but there's plenty of boundary-pushing non-traditional fare lurking along Chicago's storefront scene to please those looking for more than just a good story.

Last night I attended Trap Door Theatre's excellent American premiere of Minna, a play by British author Howard Barker. Barker, the architect of the indigestible Theatre of Catastrophe, is a superstar in Europe where his plays are produced readily and lavishly, but his work is rarely seen in the States. Barker seems like a perfect fit for Trap Door, who are committed to producing challenging and obscure works, often by European authors, but they aren't the only Chicago company right now to take a chance on one of his plays; a few weeks ago I posted my review of Oracle Theatre's unhinged production of Barker's The Castle. For perhaps the first time ever, Chicago theatergoers can see not one, but two productions of Barker's work on the same weekend. I can't imagine another time in the foreseeable future where this will happen.

Both company's productions seem to have a solid grasp on Barker's aesthetic, that his plays should offer a different experience for each and every audience member. For that reason, simple labels such as comedy or drama do not apply. Both productions forego a focus on story to create an atmosphere, to spark the senses, and to keep the audience on its toes. Laughs and tears are interchangeable, as are many of the characters and their motivations. I found the story incomprehensible, but telling a good story isn't often the concern of the avant-garde. My joy came from watching both of these strong ensembles pinball off of each other with such an unbridled glee, cackling and growling their way through Barker's blistering language and shocking violence. There's something delightful about watching these ensembles have this much fun in the midst of so much darkness, which says something about Barker's work and, I believe, the strength of Chicago's avant-garde scene.

Trap Door's Minna closes this weekend, so this is your last chance. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. You can buy tickets online or by calling the box office at 773-384-0494. Oracle's production of The Castle runs through March 6. Buy tickets here or by calling 773-244-2980.

Trap Door and Oracle are consistently putting out thought-provoking avant-garde work, so even if you miss this season's Barker-fest, there's plenty more where it came from. Check out the Trap Door and Oracle websites for more information.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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