BWW Review: CARDBOARD PIANO at Park Square Theatre

BWW Review: CARDBOARD PIANO at Park Square Theatre

CARDBOARD PIANO is an ambitious play centered on questions of trauma: what can and can't be fixed. It opens with life-affirming and joyous love between two young women in Uganda.

Chris (Adelin Phelps), just 16, is the daughter of white missionaries, naïve and self-centered enough to be a little ruthless. Adiel (Kiara Jackson), more worldly, is a local African girl, both vibrant and grounded. It's New Year's Eve 1999-so the very beginning of a new millennium. They are, in fact, devising their own wedding ceremony in the wreckage of the missionary church, which has been shelled as part of the fighting around Joseph Kony and his army of child soldiers. Before the act ends, violence has intruded into their space, precipitating a calamitous fall from the euphoric and sensual optimism of the first moments.

Act 2 takes place in the same location, 14 years later, and reunites some of the characters from Act 1, while introducing new ones. To be more specific about plot would spoil some vital discoveries, so I won't. But know that history, virulent homophobia, the healing methods of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and religious intolerance all figure in the events.

Each character is complex and layered; each takes a life-changing emotional journey in stage time. Four actors play all the parts: the script asks a lot of them. Michael Jemison plays a child soldier and, later, a township youth, both with immediacy. Ansa Akyea displays great charm as well as explosive anger and obliterating anguish before the night is out. Kiara Jackson's Adiel is lively and wise; her Ruth has both authority and heart. Adelin Phelps is more convincing as the older Chris than the younger, but some of her awkwardness is spot on for a teenager whose frontal lobe is not keeping up with her hormones. Director Signe V. Harriday holds the pace of events back perhaps just a little too much in the opening of the play, but has balanced the performances well and staged them with a choreographer's awareness of space. Foster Johns has done fine dialect coaching with the actors.

Playwright Hangsol Jung, who is from South Korea, has garnered a lot of attention in the past few years. Holder of an MFA in directing from Penn State and a MFA in playwriting from Yale, three of her plays were named in the 2015 Kilroy's list of underproduced plays penned by women or trans people-more mentions than any other playwright received. (The Kilroys are an activist group of performers and producers based in Los Angeles.) This script highlights Jung's gifts as an inventor of memorable characters who speak like real people, entangled in events that matter. She's zeroed in here on two moments that change them forever, and she's got a touch for metaphor. She resists tying up the loose ends in a way that saves the work from being too simplistic.

CARDBOARD PIANO was developed at the Eugene O'Neill Center National Playwrights Conference in 2015 and then given a world premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, KY, in 2016. That's where a delegation from Park Square Theater saw it, and decided to bring it to Saint Paul for its Midwest premiere.

The Twin Cities are home to multiple waves of immigrants, including in recent decades many survivors of war and trauma: Cambodians, Hmong, VietNamese, Karen, Somali. In fact, Saint Paul is home to the international headquarters of the Center for Victims of Torture. Wisely, the theater called in a psychologist from the CVT to meet with the company in rehearsal, and also invited CVT's director to speak from his knowledge of the themes the play takes up before a performance.

Park Square Theatre is committed to this kind of community engagement. For this reviewer, seeing a play that takes us beyond familiar American settings, with strong roles for three actors of color, raising issues that are both local and international while steering clear of simple answers, gives me hope that our theater remains a vital site for reaching across boundaries and promoting empathic progressive action.

CARDBOARD PIANO runs in Saint Paul through February 18, and is well worth a visit. Because of sexual themes and violence, I would recommend it for high school students and adults.

photo credit: Petronella J. Ytsma

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From This Author Karen Bovard

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