In 1969 Paris’s tiny Theatre de l’Epee de Bois created international shock waves when it announced plans for a new play called Eva Peron with a female impersonator in the title role. Though the long-dead Argentinean first lady may have looted her country’s treasury during the first six years of her husband’s autocratic rule, millions still revered her. When Peronists got wind of the show, they mobilized on two continents. In Argentina they celebrated masses in hopes of protecting her spirit from drag sacrilege. In Paris they stormed the theater on opening night, threw a stink bomb, and threatened to burn the building down.

The next morning Le Figaro called the play “sinister, inept, indecent, odious, nauseating and dishonest.” The string of insults probably delighted the playwright, flamboyant Argentinean expatriate Raul Damonte Botana, better known by his pen name, Copi. Like the exuberantly anticommercial Trap Door Theatre, now giving Eva Peron an intriguing but overly embellished production, Copi showed no interest in mainstream bourgeois tastes. For all the Peronists’ stink bombs and high masses, the play has no more to do with the “real” Eva Peron—a woman surrounded by contradictory myths—than a Warhol silk screen has to do with the real Jackie O. Copi and Warhol both manipulate their subjects’ celebrity auras, eliciting divergent cultural meanings but never uncovering any underlying substance.

Copi had come to Paris in 1967 to open a costume shop but quickly fell in with a performance group, the Panic Movement, begun by the absurdist enfant terrible Fernando Arrabal. Its members were fond of shocking audiences with sadomasochism, nudity, homoeroticism, and animal sacrifice (they once crucified a chicken onstage). When the troupe staged Copi’s first play, La Dame Assise, he reluctantly took over a role from Arrabal, who refused to perform naked in a bathtub.

The characters in Eva Peron, set in what may be a presidential bunker, are the cancer-ridden Evita and her nymphomaniac brother, money-hungry mother, morphine-toting nymphomaniac nurse, and dazed, nearly mute husband, Juan Peron, holed up for the last hour of Evita’s life. She’s presented as a vain, erratic, foulmouthed, drug-addicted petty dictator desperate to put the finishing touches on her legacy while endowing her family with ill-gotten gains—when she’s not threatening to leave them penniless. Out of Copi’s charnel-house imagination swirl lyrical images of indulgence, perversion, greed, pity, indolence, and cruelty as Evita flatters and bullies her politically faltering mob, drunk on power but beginning to understand that their regime is crumbling.

Like much surrealist-tinged French absurdist work popular in the 1960s, this one-act is a kind of hermetic hallucination. Copi eschews narrative, opting instead to let volatile, oversexed, quasi-melodramatic theatrical types run amok. As a result, his fever dream is alternately beguiling and impenetrable; one critic aptly described him as something more than eccentric and something less than a genius. It’s never clear whether Copi has a point to make or whether he simply delights in subversive obfuscation.

This type of dense, multivalent, linguistically clotted work, from playwrights like Arrabal, Jean Genet, Stanislaw Witkiewicz, and Werner Schwab, has been Trap Door’s hallmark since its inception 14 years ago. The troupe has never shied from the garish and strident; cadaverous face paint on shrieking actors has been nearly de rigueur. But in recent years a grounded sensuality has developed in the work, most notably in artistic director Beata Pilch’s staging of R.W. Fassbinder’s lesbian melodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant a little over a year ago. That was a kind of woozy runway show, and in Eva Peron white-attired actors pose, preen, and pout on an all-white set (designed by Merje Veski) as if trapped in a Calvin Klein Obsession ad filmed by Ken Russell. Pilch recycles another of her tricks from the Fassbinder play by having actors occasionally use mikes at opposite ends of the stage to bark their lines or tear through Sam Lewis’s bluesy songs; Lewis provides solo guitar accompaniment from a perch that reaches nearly to the ceiling.

Historical footage of Eva Peron is projected against the rear of the stage, as are excerpts from Carrie Holt de Lama’s films featuring Holly Thomas, who plays Evita here, making drug deals in alleys and restrooms. Pilch even manages to sneak in references to the other, better bankrolled Evita musical; at one point Thomas sings her dialogue to the tune of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Such bricolage parallels the whirling, destabilizing structure of the play, at times amplifying its giddiness, at times burying its poetry under clutter. When the cast breaks into an extended tango sequence around the one-hour mark of a 90-minute production, it’s clear Pilch is trying so hard to keep her audience’s attention that she’s lost track of the text.

But the sharp, mercurial cast maneuver through Copi’s demanding script with mischievous grace. Carolyn Hoerdemann is at her crazed, vulpine best as Evita’s bloodthirsty mother while Tiffany Bedwell turns the drug-pushing nurse into a poker-faced marauder. Noah Durham as Evita’s brother occasionally pushes the text when it needs massaging, but much of his time onstage is spent lounging about saying nothing: his decadent idleness makes him a credible useless appendage to his sister’s strong-arm domination. And Kevin Cox turns the stumbling, incoherent, perpetually dazed Juan Peron into a doughy menace.

In the evening’s savviest performance, Thomas plays Evita as an empty collection of gestures and poses. This Eva Peron has no more character than the yards of well-tailored tulle she wears to look the part of Argentina’s first lady. All flash and no substance, she’s the perfect blank slate for myriad meanings, just as Copi most likely intended. v