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Reflection on Spark in Chicago

Trap Door Theatre, Chicago, IL

November 11, 2012

Directed by Kate Hendrickson

                            Surprised by hope:

                            a reflection on SPARK from Chicago

                            by Emilio Williams 

Trap Door Theatre is, by all accounts, a miraculous place. To get there you must first find, and then cross, a non descriptive, narrow gangway. When you open the door, and then a second door within the back of the restaurant to access the actual venue, you first feel like you have entered a speakeasy from the Al Capone era. And in a way, the fare that is served in this 45-seat alternative venue is as dangerous to one's sense of complacency as a bottle of bootlegged moonshine smuggled from Kentucky is to the liver.

One minute inside, surrounded by all the historical production shots and posters designed by company member and avant-garde filmmaker Michal Janicki, you are already far from Chicago and Al Capone; you are closer to the subversive grandeur of a fringe venue in Berlin, Warsaw, or Barcelona.

(For more on Janicki check out Studiobema)

Trap Door Theatre is widely recognized as the place to go in Chicago for the best European avant-garde theater. The theatrics are always striking, and the acting, without exception is febrile and strong. And this may be the biggest mystery: How this troupe, with such a limited budget is able to put together productions that put to shame the best public theaters in Europe?

Last week, I had one more chance to open that dangerous Trap Door, and I joined some friends, in celebration of Veterans Day, for a dramatized reading of "Spark" by Caridad Svich. Trap Door Theatre produced some years ago, Svich's "12 Ophelias". The production was directed by Kate Hendrickson, and it has become one of those theater experiences that people still talk about, including a real size swimming pool where an all-female music band of ethereal Ophelias took turns drowning.

But "Spark" belongs to a realm far, far away from the poetic worlds that I've always associated with Caridad Svich's more well-known works, and her brilliant adaptations of Latin American novels with a taste for magic realism.

Interestingly enough, only last month I got to see, also in Chicago, a great production of "Fugitive Pieces" another dream-like, nightmare-like poetic piece by la  Svich. That play was performed in a basement and brilliantly directed by Mike Rice for a new, and very fearless, troupe named "The Ex-Pats".

Maybe that is why, this being Trap Door Theater, and Caridad Svich, being the writer of "12 Ophelias" and "Fugitive Pieces," I was really surprised, at first, to find "Spark" to be a text that was stylistically so straight forward, and to the point.

"Spark" uses a familiar settingL three sisters in a house that is falling apart, to tell the drama of a country, our country, where people go to confusing far-flung wars, and may never come back, or most likely, come back but do so, fragmented inside and out. The play is also about those left behind, waiting, living with the guilt of missing the action or missing the beloved, those in charge of paying bills and fixing roofs and get life, well, get life going.

There could be a great danger in treating this plot with a naturalistic style. But Caridad Svich, thank God, is too good and clever to let this play turn into another one of those Lifetime-made for TV movies that infest the contemporary American stage like a bad case of bedbugs. (Will American theater ever, ever recover from  the damage caused by the likes of Marsha Norman and Beth Henley, and the Pulitzer Prize committee, in the 1980's?)

Svich allows the three sisters in this play to be imperfectly human, contradictory, capable, like all, of both heroism and pettiness, all within the same breath.

She also leaves room for subtle, intelligent humor that is very much welcomed in this serious material. (The expert direction of Kate Hendrickson and the performances of the fine tuned cast showed, once more, than there cannot be a truly profound drama that doesn't find room for a good laugh or two)

The ghosts of the absent parents, run through this play in the form of a beautiful music that the characters sing or whistle under their breaths. Those music notes will become the DNA of the family, in a beautifully dangerous recognition scene, read masterfully by Trap Door company members Sadie Rogers and Bob Wilson. Was that playwriting or tightrope walking? Well, both. The moment was so tender and so controlled, it left the audience breathless.

 Company member Tiffany Bedwell brought to life the role of the pragmatic, eldest sister, in one of those rare and generous readings, so full of nuance and dimension, one wished the play would get produced with her in the leading role ASAP. The scenes between her character and her beau, read by Chris Popio, were explosive, sexy and intricate. Popio played brilliantly his character's simple but ingenuous form of no B.S. wisdom.

Newcomer, Skye Fort made hers the awkwardness of the teen sister, a young woman fighting to find her place - in her body and in a very confusing world.

I hear that "Spark" is being read in October and November in theaters and universities in the US and around the globe. I'm sure audiences and performers in all those venues will find this play, the perfect vehicle to ponder some serious issues: the drama of war for veterans, the difficulty facing women vets and their families...

But beyond all that, the audiences will find that the play talks most eloquently to that universal experience that we all endure as human beings:  the need to reconcile and negotiate, day after the day, our basic hopes with the complexities of reality.

And when I say hope, I'm not talking about the "Opra-esque" hope of winning American Idol or joining the cast of Real Housewives of Miami, or learning "The Secret". I'm talking about the hope for a basic, peaceful, honorable life, with food on the table, mental and physical health in our families, a fair shot at graduating and a solid roof over our heads.

Spoiler alert. In this play, hope wins.

Well, that may not sound avant-garde to you, but, now-a-days, in our age of irony and cynicism, I find that triumph refreshingly subversive and political.

And brave.

Emilio Williams is a playwright and theater director from Madrid, based out of Chicago. His comedies include Tables and Beds, an unromantic comedy (Winner IV Premio El Espectaculo Teatral), Medea's got some issues (Winner Best International Show at United Solo Festival, New York 2012), and Smartphones, a pocket-size farce (World Premiere at Trap Door Theatre, Summer 2012). He has been produced in his native Spain, as well as in  France and the United States. Teatro Luna, the all Latina theater company from Chicago will produce the world premiere of his next piece Your problem with men in 2013.