“Into The Empty Sky” reviewed by Jacob Davis


If you don’t know Polish Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Wisława Szymborska, Trap Door Theatre’s new work, Into the Empty Sky, is the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with her. The performance, directed by Monica Payne, is a living illustration of selected poems from the collection Map, which was published posthumously and spans nearly the entirety of Szymborska’s work. As a Polish person who lived from 1923–2012, you can imagine her themes get pretty dark. Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Barańczak and spoken by the six actresses, Szymborska’s words are also an incredibly incisive commentary on the aftershocks of trauma and what it means to be a survivor.
Eleanor Kahn’s scenic design locates the women within a cavernous underworld, with musician and composer Mike Mazzocca high above them. The women, Maryam Abdi, Tiffany Addison, Marzena Bukowska, Rashida Burtis, Halie Ecker, and Kelsey Shipley, are dressed in 1940s clothes (designed by Rachel Sypniewski) and in a trance-state until they ask the questions “Under what conditions do you dream of the dead? And what are they carrying; and do they remember who killed them?”

This play offers some possible answers to those questions, as we see the women representing their own headstones, offering only hints through brief sounds and gestures of what we’ll learn about them later. These are the graves of restless ghosts whose final moments were brutal, and guilt-ridden to a degree that has resulted in them being trapped here.

The poem “Hatred” is about the seductiveness of something which generates its own purpose and makes things easy to accomplish, even if those things are all destructive. It is spoken as if from personal experience. Another speaker reminds us that “we know ourselves only as far as we’ve been tested.” That happens in the first, segment, “Shell-Shock,” and in the second, “Memory Rising,” Payne’s direction make the presence of the Holocaust explicit through the discarded shoes one actress withdraws from her suitcase. They clearly aren’t all hers. We also get a casually brutal reference to the innocence of a younger generation that was conceived on mattresses made of human hair. Which leads to another question: you can’t avoid being influenced by an event which scarred an entire society, but what do you pass on? Have we (you) learned anything?













There are thirteen poems in all, though some are repeated with different inflections and meanings. In the third act, “Flight,” we finally get some writing from Szymborska which, while in no way erasing what came before, at least leave us on a redemptive note. Everything about the show’s design, including the lighting by Richard Norwood, and the half-defined characters by actresses with a wide range skills in music and movement, puts the viewer in a contemplative mood. Payne’s selections and direction make tangible the confusing experience of lurching between normality and horror. I was struck many times by the actresses’ sometimes frantic, but always fluid, ways of expressing how one hardens in response to desperate circumstances to a point of not knowing oneself. Since watching the performance, I’ve been pouring over Map. Szymborska wasn’t all gloom and doom, but she did communicate her generation’s experience of the war and life behind the Iron Curtain in a manner that was all the more chilling for taking such a cerebral approach to her own pain. Into the Empty Sky pays worthy tribute to her.

“Into the Empty Sky” will continue at Trap Door Theatre at 1655 W Cortland Ave, Chicago, thru June 17, with performances as follows:
Thursdays           8:00 pm
Fridays                  8:00 pm
Saturdays            8:00 pm

Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and Fridays with 2-for-1 admission on Fridays at $25 on Saturdays. To order, call 773-384-0494 or visit TrapDoorTheatre.com.
Running time is one hours and ten minutes with no intermission. Street parking is available in the neighborhood.