By: Ken Prestininzi
Directed by: Kate Hendrickson
At Trap Door Theatre
World Premiere Starts Strong but Falters in the Second Act.
Nietzsche is a name synonymous with philosophy and free-thought. For as famous as the man is, I know next to nothing about his life, ideals, or philosophies. This may be part of the reason why I did not garner as much from Trap Door’s production of Ken Prestininzi’s new work, Chaste. What starts off as a visually stunning and often funny battle between ideals and human nature, dissolves into a slow-moving meditation without the humor, heart, or visual prowess of the beginning.
The story follows Paul Ree (John Kahara) as he introduces his friend Nietzsche (Antonio Brunetti) to a virginal Russian woman named Lulu Salome (Sarah Tolan Mee) at her behest. Lulu desires to have all three of them live within the same household in a chaste manner that allows them to dedicate their lives to the mind and not the body. Taken in by the Lulu, both Paul and Nietzsche agree to the situation. This is not pleasing to Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth (Tiffany Ross), who regards Lulu as a whore bent on distracting her brother from his important work. Throughout the first act, Lulu begins to expand her brain in ways she never thought possible while Nietzsche and Paul pine over her affection. Each character wants to be loved desperately, whether by another person or by humanity in general. Even the seemingly cold Elisabeth wants the love and respect of her brother, whom she dotes on feverishly despite how terribly he treats her. This desperation and need sets up many clever moments of humor and wordplay as the characters struggle for one anothers affections and respect. It is simultaneously entertaining, visually intriguing, and thought-provoking. In the second act the script suddenly loses all of its humor. Rather than being given the opportunity to see the characters struggle for affection, we see them debate about the differences between men and women. It also feels like Paul becomes a secondary character, completely falling to the background by the final twenty minutes. While the language is still exquisite, the lack of interplay between all characters and the lack of humor made me lose interest in the characters and story.
The ensemble of four actors all commit to their characters and the physical nature of the work wonderfully. Tiffany Ross as Elisabeth is so cold and stoic throughout the play, but bursts into feverish screaming fits when trying to get the attention of her brother. Antonio Brunetti is a manic Nietzsche, struggling to control his inner urges because he is on the cusp of happiness for the first time in his life. John Kahara is hilarious and lovable as Paul Ree, delivering comic lines with perfect timing (including an unfortunate interruption involving a shoe.). There is also great physical interplay between Mr. Brunetti and Mr. Kahara. Sara Tolan Mee probably has the most difficult role to play because Lulu is an exceedingly complex woman. It is easy to see why both men are intrigued by her mind and personality. I find it interesting that in the end the question is whether it is her fault that Nietzsche goes mad, or if it is Nietzsche’s own fault for falling in love. It fits in perfectly with the philosophical battle at the heart of the second act (both Nietzsche and Lulu give a speech in regards to their opinion of women).
Director Kate Hendrickson has done some wonderful things with this production. The opening tableau with Nietzsche writing, Elisabeth sweeping the papers, Paul sleeping, and Lulu reading perfectly sets the tone of the play by giving a glimpse at who the characters are and touching on the humorous tone of the script. She has also utilized the set design of Joseph Riley wonderfully by having a trap door be the only entranceway into Lulu’s room. It feels like the actors had to go through a little extra effort each time they went into her room. The pace of the second act was a little sluggish, but she keeps the show moving quickly and efficiently from scene to scene. I really wish the second act had more visual tableau and manic energy that made the first such an enjoyable experience.
This is by no means a weak play in terms of acting, direction, or writing, but there is something left to be desired in the second act. Perhaps if I was better versed in the work of Nietzsche it would have rung more true or had a greater impact. As folks who have read some of my reviews have garnered, I am not always the biggest fan of avant garde theatre. That being said, in terms of avant garde shows I have seen this is one of the finest because it has a lot of entertainment value, especially at the beginning. Even though I was not a fan of the second act, this is a show worth taking a look at solely for the first act and poetic dialogue of Mr. Prestininzi. There may also be a good chance if you are more versed in the work and life of Nietzsche then you will get more out of it than I did.
At Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave, Chicago, IL 60622. Tickets $20 (2 for 1 Thursdays). Thursday-Saturday 8:00 PM. For Tickets call 773-384-0494, www.trapdoortheatre.com. Running time is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.