Back in the mid-1990s, a lover of the Chicago theatrical fringe could toddle over to the latest production by the European Repertory Company and watch artists such as Yasen Peyankov, Carolyn Hoerdemann and Dado wrap their willing heads and flexible bodies around some underexposed classic from the Old World. The shows were rarely dull, even more rarely linear, and absolutely never conventional.
Comfortingly, they all are still doing precisely that.
The host company is different. Peyankov's production of Werner Schwab's "OVERWEIGHT, unimportant: MISSHAPE — A European Supper" is at the Trap Door Theatre. But then Trap Door — which is surely the only place on this continent where a Schwab fan could ever feel satiated — is no Johnny-come-lately. It has been fighting the good fight of theatrical disruption in Bucktown ever since I watched Beta Pilch and her former partner knock in the nails on July 4, 1994. Those nails are still there. So are many of the same actors.
"OVERWEIGHT" is a play whose torturously punctuated title not only reflects the inner working's of the Austrian authorial mind, but is a clue that fitting on some Broadway marquee was never his a priority, prior to the moment when Schwab drunk himself to death. And it is no "Million Dollar Quartet."
Set in a sad bar, the play revolves around a bunch of desperate members of the proletariat who pay close attention to a rather beautiful young couple (on Joey Wade's set, the lovely actors Geraldine Dulex and David A. Holcombe are perched on a cruel and objectifying riser) who look sweetly into each other's eyes and kiss with a kind of demur passion, even when their fellow customers engage in all manner of mutual degradations. You get the sense it won't end well for this pair.
It does not. They are brutally gang-raped and subsequently placed on the menu along with the bratwurst (although even then, you cannot actually count them out). All of this — abuse, cannibalism — is vividly realized before your very eyes. That, for much of the population, will be all the information you need to know not to show up. But for those who find Schwab's brand of torture compelling — and thanks to Peyankov's unstinting yet unpredictable direction, I most certainly did this time — you come to embrace its metaphors.
Some of the acting here is quite astoundingly good. I suspect some of these actresses can't believe they're still doing this kind of thing — and that combined grit and resignation shows through here as never before. I can't recall how many times I've seen Hoerdemann play some perversely sexualized character, but I've never seen her do so with such angst and apt weariness. So it goes too with Dado, whose work is dark and relentless. Add in the fearless Nicole Wiesner, one of the play's many victims and another transgressive diva of the avant-garde whose work is acquiring a wholly fascinating sadness, and you have quite the hellish ensemble for a hellish play.
Peyankov's staging is rich indeed. "A bar," someone remarks, when they're not raping or eating, "frees the world from the solitude of its component parts."
Indeed. And although I don't think Schwab ever said "cheers," you might get the sense he knows your name.
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $20-$25 (with 2-for-1 admission on Thursdays) at 773-384-0494 or trapdoortheatre.com