- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call columnist
In a world full of atrocities, how do we move forward when we have destroyed that which cannot be fixed? That’s the question at the center of Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, the story of what results when a child defector from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army encounters a young lesbian couple on the eve of their flight from a war-torn township.
Unfortunately, Cardboard Piano suffers from a fatal flaw common to a lot of art based in real-life tragedy: the seeming hope that the weighty subject matter will keep us from noticing how lightweight the presentation is.
But you wouldn’t know it from the opening tableau, where lighting designer Donna Ruzika gorgeously illuminates Yuri Okahana’s understated wooden set to create a haunting array of muted colors and rectilinear shadows. Director caryn desai holds on this for over two minutes, as an a capella hymn wends its way to conclusion. Theatrical magic.
Alas, the spell is immediately broken when Chris (Allison Blaize) and Adiel (Dashawn “Dash” Barnes) start talking. Jung’s dialog is neither stylized nor naturalistic, inhabiting a no-man’s land where every sentence seems to be a coldly theoretical approximation of how a human might talk in a given moment: This is how an American might make fun of her Ugandan lover’s English grammar mistakes. This is how lesbians might express their attraction to each other. This is how a traumatized child soldier might retell one of the atrocities he’s committed.
This would be tough sledding for any director and cast, but desai and company are content to go with Jung’s (lack of) flow, faithfully transferring the stiffness from the page to the stage. Emoting is favored over subtlety, as if volume and intensity are all that’s needed to make the audience feel. The one convincing moment in the entire play comes in Act Two, when Chris confronts the now-adult child soldier Pika (JoJo Nwoko). Here a powder keg of rage, confusion, guilt, and humiliation is ignited, and it’s powerful stuff, proving that, despite Jung’s writing, the cast is capable of mining genuine emotion. It’s all the more puzzling, then, why the rest of the show is so awkward.
Many other choices contribute to the lack of verisimilitude. In Act One, after Chris and Adiel disarm Pika, they hold his gun like they might a dead rat by the tail, a woeful women-and-guns cliché we’ve seen too many times. Pika then wakes up with his wrists bound and says “Let me go” without even taking a moment to verify that he’s tied up (never mind reflexively struggle against his rather paltry restraints). Five minutes later, Adiel handles the gun with confidence, expertly stowing it at the small her back like one of Quentin Tarantino’s reservoir dogs.
There are also technical failures. The sound design is notably poor, with piped-in door sounds and gunshots like something from the cheapest Casio synth, as well as a playback of a tape recording that clearly does not match the original (the making of which we witness in Act One). And this production is a cautionary tale for why you need a fight choreographer (ICT has gone without for this show) if you’ve got physical altercations in the script. On at least two occasions, despite the deadly seriousness of the onstage action, the combat elicited laughter from a few audience members.
The clumsiness of Cardboard Piano is emblematized by the handling of the play’s eponymous metaphor. In Act One, Chris tells Pika a curiously contrived story whose dubious moral (as she explicitly relates it) is, “Every time we break something, it’s okay as long as we fix it.” Even before she finishes, you know the story will come back in Act Two. What you don’t know is that Jung not only makes you sit through the entire story again, but then contrives an appearance by an actual cardboard piano.
How do child soldiers move forward in their lives once their soldiering is over? How do individuals and societies find reconciliation in the wake of the worst atrocities? These real-world questions are certainly worthy of theatrical exploration. But in so far as Hamlet is right when he extols the virtue of holding a mirror up to nature, Cardboard Piano is (to quote the Dane) “so overdone [it] is from the purpose of playing.”
Cardboard Piano at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre
Times: Thurs-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, through May 20
Details: (562) 436-4610, Ictlongbeach.org
Venue: 300 E Ocean Blvd, Long Beach