Playwright: Witold Gombrowicz. At: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland St.
Tickets: 773-384-0494 or www.trapdoortheatre.com; $25 (two-for-one admission Thursdays)
Runs through Feb. 18
Trap Door Theatre is now tackling the many contemporary challenges of reviving Princess Ivona, (a.k.a. Iwona, ksiÄ™żniczka Burgunda). This 1930s proto-abusurdist comedy by the oft-banned Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) is a Cinderella nightmare that serves up many sarcasms about abusive people in power.
In the case of Princess Ivona, the oppressors are an image-conscious hereditary monarchy and its entrenched support system. Gombrowicz shows how the powerful conspirators crush the titular cipher heroine, a young woman named Ivona (Laura Nelson) who could be interpreted as being developmentally disabled.
Ivona gets thrust into the royal court as a huge, malicious joke. Prince Phillip (Keith Surney) names the peasant Ivona as his fiancee, thus throwing King Ignatius (Bill Gordon) and Queen Margaret (Manuela Rentea), and all their courtiers, into a tizzy.
Subtlety is not on the menu for returning director Jenny Beacraft. She and her energetic cast and crew are all game for the script's many opportunities for inserting physical and loud comedybe it through cartoon voices or bold gestures.
Perhaps the best performers who achieve this precarious balance are in the servile classes. Kevin Webb is very fun as the prissily scheming Lord Chamberlain (with a weird glove fetish), while Gus Thomas motivates the sniffling prince's manservant Simon by giving him an obsessive cocaine habit.
Cat Evans makes for a cool Isobel, the Queen's suspicious lady in waiting. Joan Nahid also gets to show off snippets of her many talents in multiple roles, ranging from a photo-op beggar woman to the sprightly sung pre-show announcement.
But more often than not, you wish more of the cast members were better-honed with their comic timing to earn more slapstick laughs. The cast's performances might also have been more powerful if they also tapped deeper into their characters' underlying (and horrifying) subtext.
Nelson gives a safe performance as Ivona, wisely eschewing certain stereotypes often seen by some Hollywood stars who have sought an Oscar by taking on disabled roles. Instead, Nelson and Beacraft present Ivona as a young woman who is overwhelmingly prevented from expressing herself.
In the rare moment when the largely mute Ivona speaks truth to power, Beacraft and her design team wallop her words home with unbridled and unsubtle symbolism. Centuries of societal oppression are trotted out over and over via the dramatic lighting of designer Richard Norwood and Rachel Sypniewski's time-spanning costumes.
Beacraft and Trap Door could have made their Princess Ivona revival even more gossipy by directly commenting on the lucrative grievance tour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex against the British royal family. But instead, the title character's brief bit of truth-telling is zeroed in to make reviving this wacky tragedy of Princess Ivona into a timeless meditation on abusive power in any era.