Watching Trap Door Theatre’s “First Ladies” is like riding an out-of-control escalator: the play starts as an exceptionally well-acted comedy, and rises – at first gradually, then with vertiginous speed – towards giddy, frightening, exhilarating heights. The last fifteen minutes are gripping, and the final two are among the best moments I’ve ever spent in a theater. From Austrian playwright Werner Schwab’s short, dark script, director Zeljko Djukic and the women of the cast have created a masterpiece performance.
The ladies of the title are Erna, Greta, and Marie. Though old friends, they’re very different. Erna (Dado), the group’s superego, lives by strict rules of thrift and self-control. She even keeps track of the amount of toilet paper her adult son uses in the bathroom. Toilets are really more Marie’s province; the id of the trio, she is fascinated by waste and has made a career out of fixing difficult clogs with her bare hands. Marie (Nicole Wiesner) is a devout, simple soul in a sturdy body, and the others indulge and tolerate her without taking her seriously. And finally there’s Greta (Beata Pilch), self-absorbed, outspoken, vulgar: a charming and repulsive egoist.
The action takes place entirely within Erna’s apartment, where the women have gathered to celebrate her recent acquisition of a fur hat and a used color television. In the play’s first half, as they chat and bicker, we learn about the ordinary texture of their lives: about their husbands and children and pets, about their Catholic faith, about their favorite foods and daily routines. In the second half, the conversation drifts to their hopes and dreams, and that’s when things really get weird. The play morphs from a dark comedy about everyday life to an exploration of the tragic potential of make-believe.
Visceral, spell-binding, and indescribably moving, “First Ladies” is not to be missed.