By Ruth Margraff.
Directed by Kate Hendrickson.
Music Composed by Pink Velvet.
Produced by Trap Door Theatre, Chicago.
“ . . . a weekend of bliss and ejaculation!”
What does the Fantasy Island episode about a ventriloquist suffering from pathological projection and Inanna, the ancient Goddess of Babylon, have in common? Aside from their convergence in Ruth Margraff’s Fantasy Island for Dummies — likely very little. Yet Margraff’s adventurous and poetic script, in the deft hands of director Kate Hendrickson, makes a compelling case for their bizarre marriage. At times intellectually bewildering, at times absurdly comic, Trap Door’s production of Fantasy Island for Dummies is at all times very entertaining.
Maryann (Emily Lotspiech) is a subliminally frustrated housewife with a light and breezy personality and an uncommon domestic “addiction” to practicing ventriloquism with her life-sized dummy named Inanna (Lyndsay Rose Kane). It all started on her honeymoon to her demanding husband George (Chris Popio), a custard tycoon who also goes by the honorific “The Custard King.” And today, just because the Custard King is so gosh-darn awesome and wealthy, they are traveling to Fantasy Island to celebrate (him); and it is up to Maryann to don her perfect-wife face, hike up her apron, and throw him the perfectest party imaginable. Cue dreamy intro music.
Fantasy Island is pretty much all they hoped it would be. After deplaning (de-plane! de-plane!), Mr. Roarke (Casey Chapman), the delightfully enthusiastic island host, and his energetic little buddy Tattoo (John Kahara) welcome them with song and dance, introducing the island and all its fantastical possibilities. Aside from seeing his custard empire grow and having the perfect party, George’s other hopeful fantasy includes having a “weekend of bliss and ejaculation” — which means seeing his wife transformed into the perfect housewife of every custard magnate’s dreams — which itself means seeing her cured of the “addiction” that has been a major obstacle (for him, sexually) in their marriage.
With the helpful expository commentary of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, we learn more of Maryann and Inanna’s deep and uniting soma-sexual bond during an impromptu ventriloquy performance. It starts off with Maryann throwing some benign jokes into Inanna’s mouth, but when George begins to interfere in the performance Inanna starts to speak against Maryann’s will, insulting George and turning the jokes cruder and edgier. It seems that her voice is not the only thing Maryann projects into Inanna: the Babylonian Goddess of fertility also seems to harbor the repressed virile and chthonic side of Maryann’s personality.
Envious of Inanna’s inert and lifeless existence as a wooden object free from responsibilities of perfect wifely-hood, Maryann makes a pact with Mr. Roarke to help rid her of her dependence on the dummy. Mr. Roarke’s magical help, however, only jeopardizes Maryann’s own existence (an aspect of the pact she apparently overlooked), as now Inanna is made woman and Maryann is made the dummy. Discovering too late the virtue of her freewill, Maryann must now fight Inanna for her freedom as only two aspiring perfect wives can: by throwing the perfect party in the underworld. Surprises ensue, as Inanna herself learns that the real life of a wife demands a spiritual sacrifice greater than the bodily burden of wearing a quarry of sparkling gems.
Fantasy Island for Dummies has a pronouncedly obvious feminist thesis running through it, which, at times, despite its nuance, feels a little “old apron” and lacks a fulfilling conclusion: the sexually repressed and unfulfilled housewife trope is readily comprehensible, but Margraff’s resolution, unless I misunderstood it, is just as limp and cliché, both dramatically and intellectually.
Nevertheless, while I am usually not one to enjoy productions with a socio-political edge, I found this play infectiously entertaining and its storytelling refreshingly unique. There’s no emotional tug here, but there’s a lot to feast on visually, comically, and intellectually, particularly in Margraff’s use of the myths of Inanna, the ancient Babylonion Goddess of love, fertility, and warfare. And though the fine poetic and symbolic subtleties of Margraff’s story/dialogue become a bit overwhelming to process at the end, the production sustains itself with its exciting energy and amusing performances.
John Kahara as Tattoo and especially Casey Chapman as Mr. Roarke nearly steal the show with their antagonistic chemistry and outlandish personalities, strutting and dancing around the stage. Indeed, I was much in thrall to Chapman’s charisma throughout. Chris Popio as George plays an absurd parody of misogyny, but he pulls it off with likeable charm, and, to me, he had the best one-liners (such as his frustrated exclamation, “Plunge my erection into hell, Maryann!”).
The physicality of both Emily Lotspiech and Lyndsay Rose Kane (as Maryann and Inanna, respectively) was also impressive to behold as they each in turn embodied the rigid and spasmodic movements of a dummy, synchronized to the other’s gestures. Holley Cerney, too, playing a medley of minor roles including a wily monkey and a neurotic Yogi, captured my attention throughout the production with her charming facial expressions and exceptional physical expressivity.
If avant-garde, absurdist-cum-intellectual theatre with socio-political spice doesn’t sound like your fantasy of choice, I would encourage you to reconsider: having once been suspicious of “avant-garde” theatre, and being none too impressed by the typical fare of Chicago theatres’ socio-political commentary, I write with confidence that Trap Door offers something truly fresh and interesting in their curious productions. And while maybe not their strongest production to date, Fantasy Island for Dummies is still more exciting, exploratory, and entertaining than most — so long as you’re willing to dive into the oddly fantastical.
Reviewed on 28 September 2016.
Playing at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and Fridays, and $25 on Saturdays, with special 2-for-1 admission on Fridays. For tickets and information, call 773-384-0494, or visit TrapDoorTheatre.com. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. through November 5th. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission.