Chicago Theater Review: JOHN DOE (Trap Door)

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by Barnaby Hughes on September 27, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Trap Door Theatre is entered via a long narrow gap between two Bucktown restaurants. Upon arrival, Artistic Director Beata Pilch assigns audience members a number and Mike Steele seats them. Already in costume for their roles as madhouse attendants, Pilch and Steele look suitably frightening and forbidding. This disquieting introduction sets the tone for what follows.

Scene from JOHN DOE at Trap Door Theatre, Adapted and Directed by Andrzej St. Dziuk. Photo by Maciej Mikulski.

Based on The Madman and the Nun by avant-garde Polish poet, painter and playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939), John Doe is an unforgettable critique of modern society. Adapted and directed by Andrzej St. Dziuk, guest artist from the Teatr Witkacy in Poland and specialist in the works of Witkiewicz, Trap Door Theatre’s production of John Doe is less an updating of the play for contemporary, American audiences than it is an intensification of the original. Most of Witkiewicz’s script is retained, but the overall mania is heightened through a wildly reimagined finale, a disturbing new introductory scene, and the eerily extravagant, tortured performances of the play’s principal characters.

Scene from JOHN DOE at Trap Door Theatre, Adapted and Directed by Andrzej St. Dziuk - Photo by Maciej Mikulski.

Set entirely in a dark, dingy cell with minimal pauses between scenes, John Doe provides few markers of passing time. All melts together in one continuous stream of madness. Discordant, pulsing music contributes to the frenzied atmosphere, pausing only to indicate John Doe’s recovery of reason. Alexander Walpurg (played by Wesley Walker), the titular character’s actual name, is a suicidal poet. His tormentors are Dr. Jan Bidello (John Gray), Dr. Ephraim Grün (Johnny Graff), Professor Ernest Walldorf (Michael Garvey), and their attendants (the aforementioned Pilch and Steele).

Scene from JOHN DOE at Trap Door Theatre - Adapted and Directed by Andrzej St. Dziuk. Photo by Maciej Mikulski.

What sets the plot in motion is the ministrations of Sister Anna (Holly Thomas Cerney); sent by Bidello to salve Walpurg’s troubled mind, she also heals his heart. Under Walpurg’s interrogation, Sister Anna reveals that she became a nun after her fiancé’s suicide. As the similarity of their tortured souls becomes mutually evident, the two quickly declare their love and (inevitably?) wind up in bed together. Will the newfound lovers escape? Will they survive with their sanity intact? And what of their so-called doctors: the lobotomist Walldorf, the sex-obsessed psychoanalyst Grün, and the drug-feeding psychiatrist Bidello? Who is mad? Who is sane? As with any truly provocative play, John Doe raises more questions than it answers.

Scene from JOHN DOE at Trap Door Theatre, Adapted and Directed by Andrzej St. Dziuk (photo by Maciej Mikulski).

Anchoring the production are Walker and Cerney’s raw, revelatory performances. Cerney, more so than the other actors, portrays her character’s interior state through body language, including rapid movement, awkward contortions and coiled limbs. One of Walker’s finest moments is the sheer delight bordering on the orgasmic with which he consumes a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Also enjoyable is the campy Graff, whose wide-mouthed, toothy grin and jerky gait are both hideous and humorous. John Doe is the kind of head-scratching drama that sends shivers down your spine and hesitant laughter out of your gaping mouth.

photos by Maciej Mikulski

John Doe
Trap Door Theatre
in collaboration with Teatr Witkacy
1655 W Cortland St
Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on October 25, 2014
for tickets, call (773) 384-0494 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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