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Cardboard Piano

a Drama
by Hansol Jung

COMPANY : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 5174

SHOWING : November 11, 2017 - December 03, 2017



New Year’s Eve 1999. In a remote northern Ugandan village, two girls – one, a local villager and the other, the daughter of American missionaries – sneak into the local church to hold a makeshift wedding for themselves. When their idyllic reverie is interrupted by a boy soldier fleeing the atrocities of war, the girls are thrust into a chain of events will change their lives forever.

Director Karen Robinson
Cast Isake Akanke
Chris Ashley Anderson
Pika/Francis Stephen Ruffin
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Pika, Paul, and Marry
by playgoer
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Hansol Jung’s "Cardboard Piano" covers some of the same ground as Danai Gurira’s "Eclipsed," showing us the effects of civil war on African child soldiers. Whereas Ms. Gurira’s play focuses on the wives of a rebel commander, Ms. Jung’s play focuses on the interaction between a white Christian missionaries’ daughter and an African child soldier who has been physically assaulted by a rebel commander. It has more of the feel of fiction than does "Eclipsed," relying as it does on the symbol of a cardboard piano.

The introduction of the idea of a miniature cardboard piano occurs at a quiet spot in the action-filled first act. At first, it seems like a fairly pallid emblem for humankind’s ability to fix things. Its repetition (with variation) in the second act has more power, reinforced by the physical manifestation of a cardboard piano late in the act. But it all has the artificial feel of a well-told story, with a bit of LGBT moralizing to top it off.

The play takes place in two acts, 14 and a half years apart. The three main characters of the first act (Chris, Adiel, and Pika) are supposed to be teenagers. In the second act, the same three actors appear, but as older individuals. Casting for this sort of show is problematic, and Actor’s Express hasn’t successfully navigated the problem. The actors are obviously older than teenagers in the first act, yet aren’t quite old enough in the second act.

Nor does Kat Conley’s set navigate the 14.5 year gap well. In the first act, we’re supposedly inside a church with a hole blasted in its roof. That’s not what we see. The brick back wall has windows with prison bars and a door. It looks like we’re in a courtyard, an effect strengthened by the sideways benches and blanket on the ground at the start, as if for a refugee’s shelter or a nighttime picnic. The "hole" in the roof is clearly an empty window frame inside a suspended structure resembling roof trusses and a skylight. It’s functional, but that’s about it. Rebecca Makus’ dim lighting suggests an outside setting.

In the second act, the prison bars have been replaced with windows, a skylight has been installed in the roof, and the lockable door has been replaced with louvered folding doors. With a pulpit and with benches and with brighter lighting, it looks more like the inside of a church. Still, the louvered doors give the impression of an entrance from one room to another, while the windows in the same wall suggest the door is to the outside. Architecturally, the set doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The thrust stage, with audience on three sides, also presents blocking problems. Director Karen Robinson has staged most scenes with a stationary actor whose back is toward one section of the audience almost the whole time. I assume Ashley Anderson (playing Chris, the missionaries’ daughter) has a face, but I could hardly tell in the first act from my position in the audience. It’s jarring that only the curtain call has been staged to take the full audience into account. Actors bow on the diagonal to one side of the audience (but pretty clearly visible to everyone), then cross the stage to bow in the opposite direction. If only the entire play had been blocked with the same considerations!

Sydney Lenoir Roberts’ costumes are fine, lending a more youthful air to the actors in the first act than in the second, but costumes can’t take the place of age-appropriate actors inhabiting them. David Sterrit’s fight choreography is more than fine, adding real excitement to the first act. Jan Wikstrom’s dialect coaching has helped create believable African-inflected speech patterns that aren’t difficult for American ears to understand (although Rob Demery’s consistent pronunciation of "soldier" as three syllables in both acts doesn’t make enough of a distinction between the two roles he is playing). Ryan Bradburn’s special make-up, on the other hand, isn’t altogether successful. Ms. Jung’s script calls for two actors to show the effects of having had an ear cut off, and that’s just not possible in any realistic manner.

Performances are generally good, taking into account that only one actor (Mr. Demery) is an appropriate age for his characters in the two acts. Ashley Anderson has gamine-like coltishness in the first act as Chris, transitioning to a more somber 30-year-old in the second. Isake Akanke is a charming presence in both acts, and Stephen Ruffin plays teens in both acts with innocence and heartbreaking emotion. Rob Demery is a commanding presence, as a rebel commander in the first act and a preacher in the second act, but fails to seem believable in his big emotional breakdown in act two. That adds to the impression that this story is a playwright’s fiction.

Hymn singing starts both acts and ends the show. Dr. Oral Moses, the musical director, has gotten fairly good balance among the four voices, but has the singers take a unison breath in the middle of a phrase that throws off the syntax. It’s another touch of artificiality that firmly grounds this production in the realm of neatly tied-up fiction. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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