Austrian sculptor turned playwright Werner Schwab, who died of alcohol poisoning on New Year’s Eve 1993 at the age of 35, penned more than a dozen plays like People Annihilation or My Liver Is Senseless. These plotless, antisocial works are the type of theater that typically drives audiences away: the stories abound in rape, murder, incest, scatology, and general contempt for humanity. But for Trap Door Theatre to lose three patrons—roughly 10 percent of the crowd on opening night, when the house was padded with friends, family, and other supporters—is exceptional. Clearly director Tracy Letts is doing something right.
Schwab was an underground sensation in Austria and Germany in the early 90s. But his work is nearly unknown in America—this is the North American premiere of People Annihilation and, as far as I can tell, only the second production of his work in this country. That’s hardly surprising, however, given Schwab’s eagerness to defy bourgeois theatrical expectations. Like Jarry, Artaud, and Witkiewicz before him, Schwab turns theater into a social irritant by using heightened, fractured language and repulsive characters. Sticking with this play to the final curtain, even in a production as smart, colorful, and funny as this one, was an ordeal at times.
That probably would have suited Schwab just fine. His work belongs to Austria’s robust tradition of postwar nihilism, notably the Viennese Actionists of the 1960s. (Their performances included self-mutilation, coprophilia, and ritualistic animal killings; the group’s cofounder, Gunter Brus, was arrested during a 1968 event when he stripped naked, cut himself with a razor, smeared feces on himself, and sang the Austrian national anthem while masturbating.) Schwab’s most immediate influence, however, was fellow Austrian playwright (and novelist) Thomas Bernhard, who also portrayed people as fundamentally brutal, stupid, and intolerant. What separates these writers’ work from the adolescent self-indulgence of a Bret Easton Ellis or Sarah Kane is a buoying, paradoxical faith in the beauty of the human morass. As Bernhard wrote in his autobiography, he believed the world was “a cesspit, but one which engendered the most intricate and beautiful forms if one looked into it long enough.”
That glee, or what Letts describes as Schwab’s “frustrated romanticism,” gives Trap Door’s two-hour, intermissionless assault a giddy lightness despite its enor-mous subjects: religion, incest, social philosophy. The “story” revolves around the hateful inhabi-tants of a Graz apartment building. Alcoholic painter Herrmann and his self-righteous Catholic mother, Mrs. Wurm, stew together in one flat, each fantasizing about ways the other should die (Herrmann dreams of drilling a hole in his mother’s head and sticking his “lu-lu” in it). Mr. and Mrs. Kovacic try to maintain a facade of middle-class respectability despite his habit of fondling his two ditzy daughters. And aging, aristocratic Mrs. Grollfeuer (whom everyone calls “Growlfire”) humiliates and degrades her neighbors every chance she gets, speaking perhaps for the playwright when she concludes, “Most of all I always liked hating everything.” The meager plot concerns the ways everyone bothers everyone else, leading to a mass murder.
Letts’s tight production has a nearly farcical tone, although it’s a vicious kind of farce that doesn’t whitewash the play. The actors nail Schwab’s characters, who churn like maniacs trying to stay on good behavior. Though Schwab’s stage directions call for effusive emotional extremes again and again, this production’s restraint serves the script’s rank humor. So do the cast’s razor-sharp, grotesque characterizations, from Marzena Bukowska’s shriveled, gnawing Mrs. Wurm to Nicole Wiesner’s imperturbable, foghorn-voiced Mrs. Kovacic to Beata Pilch’s unctuous Mrs. Grollfeuer.
Letts’s light touch also helps clarify Schwab’s dense language: the play’s three acts and false ending are like linguistic avalanches in which issues surface, submerge, and reappear every few minutes, and there’s an onslaught of ever-shifting metaphors and convoluted, almost unintelligible idioms. “Your Herrmann is a skinned life, Mrs. Wurm,” says Mrs. Grollfeuer. “I was fortunate enough to be able to petrify. Thoughtlessly, your kind produce deathless agony.” Such difficult, paradoxical dialogue can spark or numb the imagination, but these actors render nearly every word with utter clarity, even when you wish they’d shut up. (Mrs. Grollfeuer’s aimless monologue at the end seems to go on forever despite some judicious cuts–the only changes Letts made to the script.)
People Annihilation cuts like a hacksaw straight into the id, unleashing furious but effective images. Like many of Trap Door’s best productions, this one is a bracing, aggravating, potentially thrill-ing experience for those willing to endure it. It’s also a testament to this scrappy company’s commitment to the avant-garde. The script was brought to them by Letts, a Steppenwolf ensemble member and playwright whose most recent work, Man From Nebraska, was a Pulitzer finalist. Like everyone at Trap Door, in this production and others, he’s working for free. But you can leave a tip on the way out.
When: Through 3/5: Thu-Sat 8 PM
Where: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland
Price: $12-$20; two for one Thu
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Moquay.