“Peepshow,” proclaims an eye-catching red-and-white sign over a doorway on Division near Milwaukee. But it’s not what the casual passerby might think. The door leads into a white-tiled building that was built as the Chopin Theatre in 1918; it retained that identity for nearly 30 years, then in the 1950s was taken over by a savings and loan company. This week marks its official return to theatrical use as At the Gallery, a multiarts space whose inaugural offering proudly reeks of Eastern European-flavored avant-gardism.

Peepshow is a play, and At the Gallery is hosting its U.S. premiere. But according to Henryk Baranowski, who is making his American directorial debut, “Every time [the play is done] is a world premiere.” The play, about a young poet’s psychosexual conflicts, was written in 1984 by George Tabori, a Hungarian best known in the U.S. for his play Brecht on Brecht and his screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess and Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony.

Baranowski, a Pole who now lives in Berlin and works extensively throughout Europe, previously staged Peepshow in 1986 for his own company, Transformtheater. The current production grew out of acting workshops that he led here earlier this year under the auspices of the International Performance Studio, founded by Nicole Dreiske. (IPS is copresenting Peepshow with At the Gallery’s Polish-immigrant owner-developer Zygmunt Dyrkacz.) Despite its continental antecedents, Baranowski believes the production will have a distinctly local flavor: “In creating this play together, we tried to understand the power between these actors, me, and this text–what moves us together,” he says. “These actors are a prism through which I see the city. They are this city.”

Baranowski’s work is noted for its offbeat use of props and settings; in the version of James Joyce’s Ulysses that he staged in Warsaw in January, he flooded the floor of the theater–including the seating area–with four feet of water (the audience sat on oil drums, he says). Most of the action of Peepshow is set on the shaky, exposed metal springs of eight onstage beds. “I don’t like stories in theater,” he says. “Stories for me are something on the surface.” What he’s interested in, he says, “are the energies–the relationships which are pushing people to do something.”

Peepshow plays April 18 through June 30 at At the Gallery, 1543 W. Division; for more information call 281-9075.

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