Tiffany Bedwell plays the title role in Trap Door Theatre's Phèdre. Credit: J. Michael Griggs

You wouldn’t know it from looking, but Trap Door’s cramped, sepulchral, amenity-free cubbyhole, where the shoestring company has been mounting intractable, inscrutable plays for 22 years, is the site of perhaps the greatest Chicago theater success in the last quarter century.

I know, I know, such superlatives are supposed to be reserved for companies like the Goodman or Steppenwolf (or in charitable moments, Chicago Shakespeare Theater), and there’s no denying the scale and scope of those companies’ accomplishments. But in our pathologically mercantile culture, we too easily confuse a cultural institution’s accumulation of assets—capital, real estate, headlines, Equity contracts, subscription numbers and/or celebrity drawing power—with its importance. Big, splashy, and well funded always seems to matter, even if it’s, you know, A Christmas Carol.

But Chicago has become the theater capital of the country precisely because so many fringe artists have refused to cater to commercial interests, year after year doggedly mounting work devoid of marketing essentials: a recent New York splash, an at least somewhat well-known playwright, a collection of baby­ boomer-beloved pop songs strung together in failed simulation of a plot. And they’ll do it just about anywhere—church basements and attics, abandoned office buildings, converted Park District storage rooms, Berwyn. Precious few make a living off their work; undoubtedly for most, art making is an annual debt to be written off. But they’re creating a scene where ideas, innovation, insight, and insurrection is about all that matters. And if theater’s primary value lies in its communal investigation of our cultural truths—exposing our social existence as it is, rather than as moneyed interests would have us believe—then ours is the rare theater scene that truly matters.

Trap Door has been far outside the commercial mainstream since opening its doors in 1994 with, of all things, The Madman and the Nun by Stansiław Witkiewicz, a seminal figure in the Polish avant-garde. His swirling, eidetic, impermeable, largely forgotten works (of which Trap Door has produced four) withhold the sorts of things American audiences have been trained to believe are indispensable in a play: linear narrative, psychologically consistent characters, broad opportunities for audience empathy. Ditto for the plays of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schwab, Matei Visniec, Catherine Sullivan, and Fernando Arrabal, all of which Trap Door has produced multiple times. They even managed to get Visniec and Arrabal, major figures in European theater, to cross the Atlantic to attend openings.

Despite nearly a quarter century presenting demanding, unmarketable works, Trap Door has garnered numerous awards, launched European tours, and significantly grown its audience. Yet it hasn’t gone the usual route charted by successful fringe companies: get a bigger space and program more audience-friendly material to support it. Rather they do what they’ve always done, challenging our conventional understandings of what theater is, how it operates, and why it matters. Such constancy is their arguably greatest success. And given our nation’s rising, recalcitrant nativism, their focus on European experimentalism reminds us of an urgent truth: the American way of doing things is only one among many.

Their newest offering, Paul Schmidt’s scaled-down adaptation of Racine’s 1677 neoclassical tragedy Phèdre, focuses on the titular Athenian queen whose “monstrous” lust for her stepson Hippolytus unleashes all manner of personal and civic agony. On the surface it’s a relatively safe choice; the story is straightforward, the characters cohere, and some people have actually heard of Racine. But director Nicole Wiesner superimposes stark distancing devices—angular stylized movement, intermittent doubling of characters, barking choral laughter—that render the proceedings brutal and strange, as does Danny Rockett’s echoing, distortion-heavy sound design. Costume designer Rachel M. Spyniewski decks everyone out in various combinations of leather, crinoline, combat boots, and fishnets, and with scenic designer J. Michael Griggs’s inclined, rough-hewn wooden slab and suspended ropes making up the bulk of the set, the land of Troezen becomes a combination modeling runway/S&M dungeon.

Wiesner creates arresting, confounding stage images, as out-of-scene characters get sucked into squares of light lining the stage’s periphery, where they seem doomed to pose and primp as their world collapses. While the images don’t evolve significantly over the show’s 75 minutes (and they all but vanish in a climax overly dependent on melodramatic acting), Wiesner’s eye for the inexplicably resonant is characteristically sharp. And it is precisely from the collision of inexplicability and resonance that this show, like so many at Trap Door over the years, draws its power.  v