The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant | Trap Door Theatre

When Through 11/4: Thu-Sat 8 PM

Where Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland

Price $20, two for one Thursday

Info 773-384-0494

Before Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a filmmaker he expressed his contempt for bourgeois convention onstage, joining Munich’s experimental Action Theater in 1967. According to one contemporary account, its raucous shows featured “random and irrational factors…but also vehemently passionate acting, and a light, nonchalant kind of aggressiveness.” Fassbinder took a cooler approach when he filmed one of his early plays, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, in 1972. One critic said that Fassbinder depicted the infatuation of famous fashion designer Petra with ambitious, self-absorbed model Karin so languorously that he turned the work into a “lesbian slumber party.”

In their production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Trap Door Theatre directors Beata Pilch and Krishna LeFan emulate the film’s beguilingly anachronistic Weimar-esque costumes but eschew its moody reserve. Returning to the Action Theater’s chaotic playfulness, they’ve come up with a preshow that resembles an angst-y Laugh-In pilot, with cast members in wigs, go-go boots, and pallid makeup ponying to blaring hard bop. When the play begins, on a stage draped in black velvet and silver lame, the characters bellow seemingly random lines into reverb-heavy microphones and swoop, sweep, pose, glare, and swoon like exiles from some Andy Warhol/Charles Ludlam telenovela staged by Bob Fosse.

For most of the 90-minute production’s first half, this emphasis on style gives short shrift to the characters and their relationships. Petra’s brooding maid Marlene, whose adoration and resentment of her condescending employer provides the film’s greatest poignancy, is so busy pouting and dancing around in simulated emotional distress that, despite Carolyn Shoemaker’s charisma, the character becomes background noise. And Petra’s detailed discussion with her catty friend Sidonie about Petra’s recently ended abusive marriage–pivotal to the play’s sexual politics and to understanding her sudden romantic idealization of another woman–seems an empty word jam.

But in the second half–once Petra and her bored, waifish lover settle into their relationship, which is rife with mutual resentment and manipulation–the directors use the delirium they’ve established to underscore the drama. As Petra descends into furious, self-destructive obsession, the show’s manic style throws her chaotic feelings into higher relief. But the real key to the production’s uptick is Kim McKean’s mesmerizing, mercurial performance as Karin. With dreary grace she flips from idealistic naivete to cold opportunism and back again, never revealing whether Karin loves Petra or just wants to use her.

McKean’s opacity gives Nicole Wiesner the jump start she needs to take Petra to an astonishing level of emotional honesty. As the play’s story spins out of control, the characters become increasingly outrageous parodies of fashion-world types. But because Wiesner makes the underlying truth of Petra’s emotional torment grow in proportion to Fassbinder’s grotesque distortions, the show remains deftly poised between melodrama and tragedy. There’s no easy interpretation of this unstable, richly ambiguous evening.