Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Cardboard Piano's first act takes place on New Year's Eve, 1999, in a rural township in northern Uganda. The church is led by a white missionary and his wife. Their teenage daughter Chris looks forward to leaving the territory wracked by civil war and anti-western factions. However, Chris will not be leaving with her parents. Instead, she plans to escape with Adiel, a township girl with whom Chris is in love. This very New Year's Eve they conduct a secret wedding ceremony, pledging themselves to one another. Having discovered this plan, Chris' parents have turned her out, unable to accept her love for another girl. Adiel's parents have been killed in the fighting, so why not leave together for a place where they can be safe, safe from war and from hateful judgments?
Their ardor is interrupted by a 13-year-old boy soldier, seriously wounded and seeking shelter from the fighting. Pika was forced to serve in a rebel group, forced to do horrendous things. He wants to get away and is now being hunted down himself. Their encounter seems like a godsend, a gift that will help them cast off the fears and shame they bear. We learn about a cardboard piano that becomes a metaphor for hope and healing, uniting Pika with the girls. But in a time and place like this, can they really escape the grip of hatred?
Act two is set in that same church fourteen years later. The community is calmer now, at least not in outright civil war. No longer are there white missionaries. The church, nicely restored, is now led by Pastor Paul, who in turn is led by his wife Ruth, an outspoken woman from the city who followed her heart to marry Paul and live in this remote district. They are about to celebrate their anniversary when Chris enters. She has returned to the church for the first time since her escape to honor her father's dying wish that his ashes be scattered there. For all these years, she and her father remained estranged, so this is her last chance to make peace with him. Ruth warmly welcomes Chris but Paul is uneasy with her request. Another man from the village, Francis, shows up. Together they discover things about the past and the present, challenging things that force each to face the choices they must make, and the reality that there are no easy solutions.
Playwright Hansol Jung writes with insight into the conditions of life under siege, of a country gone mad with rage masquerading as ideology, and of a society that has absolutely no tolerance for same-sex love, with lovers forced into hiding, with their very lives at stake. Jung is from South Korea and from the sources I have found, most of her plays to date include Korean characters, or have some reference to her homeland. She is affiliated New York-based Ma-Yi Theater Company whose primary mission is to develop and produce new plays by Asian-American writers and shape the national discourse about what it means to be Asian American today. With Cardboard Piano, she seems to have set aside those aims, though she still addresses the theme of "otherness" that Asian Americans often face. In spite of the territory being far from Jung's base, she skillfully delineates the place and the characters that bring Cardboard Piano to forceful life.
Adelin Phelps is excellent as Chris, impulsive and headstrong as the teenager in act one, weighed down by the harsh experiences of life fourteen years later in the second act. Phelps adeptly conveys the loss of joy and onset of despair, while still holding on to a shard of hopewhy else return to Uganda? Kiara Jackson is completely winning as Adiel in act one, somewhat naïve but committed to the love she has claimed. There is sparkling chemistry in the early scenes between Phelps and Jackson as two teenagers in love, especially when they sing "Unchained Melody" together. In act two, Jackson ably plays Ruth, a worldly, confident pastor's wife, sure of her status until the light of truth brings about a fall. Jackson shows finesse in differentiating the accents between the speech of rural Adiel and sophisticated Ruth, though those accents sometimes make it difficult to catch every word.
Michael Jemison is heartwrenching as Pika, the boy soldier, forced into degrading his own spirit, and desperate for a path to redemption (setting aside the quibble that Jemison seems tall for a 13-year-old). In act two he conveys Francis' dignity, strength, and righteous outrage. Ansa Akyea is appropriately menacing in the role of a solider hunting down Pika in act one. In aact two he has much more to do, superbly depicting the affirmative pastor Paul who is unstrung by his encounter with the truth that Chris carries with her.
Director Signe V. Harriday does not shy away from the strong emotions embedded in the play, both the erotic pull of love between the two teenage girls, the graphic description of atrocities committed in war, and the inflamed hatred toward those who have been decreed as evil simply by virtue of who they are and who they love. Harriday uses these emotional surges to move the play forward, making each moment seem the natural, inevitable result of what came before. She draws upon sound (Jacob M. Davis, designer) and lighting (Michael P. Kittel) to intensify the feelings of danger and fear that occur, especially as a rising arc in act one.
The play is well served by Sarah Brandner's set design, with the shelled out church nicely restored for act two, and by Sara Wilcox's costumes.
The leap between act one and act two prompts questions unanswered by the playwright. How did Chris live for those fourteen years, as a teenager apart from her parents? Nothing is ever said about that which might strengthen the moral authority Chris carries on her return to Uganda. Of course, we have to take life based on what knowledge is given to us, not based on speculation of the unknown. Still, one can't help wondering how those fourteen years had impacted Chris.
In spite of these gaps in the narrative, the gripping circumstance Jung invents for act one and the compelling results that surface in act two make for more than enough drama, and prompt numerous pathways of inquiry along political, ethical and personal lines. It especially calls into question our ability to forgive and the value of forgiveness. If a cardboard piano can be fixed, can the wounds to our spirit likewise be healed?
Cardboard Piano is challenging in its intensity and brutality, but rewarding in giving voice to unimaginable sorrow and pain. With a wonderful quartet of actors bringing this story to life, it is very much worth seeing. Park Square is to be commended for continuing to mount new works that illuminate the infinite range of experiences of the human heart.
Cardboard Piano, through February 18, 2018, at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $60.00. Age 30 and under, $21.00 for standard seats; seniors (Age 62+): $5.00 discount; ASL/AD Patrons: 12 off you and one guest; military: $10.00 discount; rush tickets: $24.00 one hour before performance, if available - cash only. For tickets, call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Playwright: Hansol Jung; Director: Signe V. Harriday; Scenic Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Sara Wilcox; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Properties Design: Terri Ristow; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Blood Effects: Tyler Olsen and Craig Kossen; Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Jaya Robillard.
Cast: Ansa Akyea (Soldier/Paul), Kiara Jackson (Adiel/Ruth) Michael Jemison (Pika/Francis), Adelin Phelps (Chris).