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First Ladies at Trap Door Theatre | Theater review

Austrian playwright Werner Schwab’s satiric excoriation of his historically amnesiac homeland gets a fiery production at Trap Door.
Photo: Michal Janicki Nicole Wiesner, Dado and Beata Pilch in First Ladies
By John Beer |

Often compared to his similarly excoriating Austrian predecessor Thomas Bernhard, the scatologically minded Schwab enjoyed an enormous and scandalous success in the four years between the Viennese debut of Die Präsidentinnen (translated here as First Ladies) and his 1994 alcohol-related death at age 35. Deceptively simple, even traditional, in its structure, composed primarily of shifting monologues delivered by its three characters, the play mounts a relentless assault on Schwab’s Catholic, historically amnesiac homeland.

The vulgar butcher beloved by penny-pinching Erna shares a name—Karol Wojtyla—with the pope whose appearance on television sends the three women into raptures. The mutual accusations of “Nazi!” screamed during a tussle between Erna and Greta must have seemed particularly pointed in 1990, with former Wehrmacht officer Kurt Waldheim in Austria’s presidential palace. The play’s central, nauseating metaphor has mentally challenged Marie unblocking the toilets of Vienna’s gilded classes with her bare hands, digging through shit to uncover unexpected treasures.

TUTA artistic director Djukic handles this grotesque material with restraint, accenting the action with a few brilliant flourishes. His trio of actors deftly unfolds Schwab’s bill of particulars: Pilch’s fiery Greta, Dado’s yearning Erna and Wiesner’s guileless, eerily triumphant Marie together make an indelible impression.

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