Chicago theater cognoscenti routinely lament what little opportunity there is for sustained commercial success in the off-Loop scene. Even the best-reviewed, best-attended fringe production has about a snowball’s chance in hell of extending for years, “moving downtown,” or snagging the golden ticket to New York. That may be so, but we’re better for it. The off-Loop scene is vital precisely because it’s not beholden to commercial interests. By and large, fringe artists put up shows they hope will matter, even if they appeal only to select audiences, lose money, and disappear after four weeks. It’s a marketplace of ideas rather than investment opportunities.
No company exemplifies Chicago fringe’s impoverished robustness better than Trap Door Theatre. After two decades of esoteric, demanding, audience-unfriendly avant-garde work, they regularly pack their cramped Bucktown space and still can’t afford to pay anyone. I’m sure they lost their shirts in 2011 when they flew in renowned Romanian playwright Matei Vişniec for the opening night of his The Word Progress on My Mother’s Lips Doesn’t Ring True. He was beaming after that show, which was one of Trap Door’s most arresting and beautiful; it’s back now for a two-week run before heading to the Sibiu International Theatre Festival and a five-city tour of Romania. The hallucinogenic, harrowing piece focuses on a fractious group of Balkan refugees returning home to fight over land built mostly from human remains. It won’t run for ten years, but it might revitalize your imagination—and maybe even your soul.