Actors’ Express is holding forth with Hansol Jung’s powerful drama “Cardboard Piano,” directed by Karen Robinson, running through Dec. 3.
Ms. Jung is a young South Korean playwright who is making a name for herself at important theatres in the U. S. (like New York Theatre Workshop, where “Rent” started); her work has also been performed in London. She’s a graduate of the prestigious Yale School of Drama with an MFA in playwriting.
“Cardboard Piano” is set in Uganda; it depicts the violence and ugliness of war, mankind’s worst invention; it’s also a celebration of young romance, innocence, and the struggle to forgive.
That’s a lot for four actors to carry, but for me it’s the excellence of the acting here that I celebrate the most. Two young girls, teenagers, are in love: Chris (Ashley Anderson, who was wonderful last summer as Ada in Essential Theatre’s “Ada and the Memory Machine”) and Adiel/Ruth (Isake Akanke, who was part of a much-lauded cast in Synchronicity Theatre’s recent “Eclipsed.”
In addition, the always excellent Stephen Ruffin plays Pika/Francis; and Rob Demery, a fine actor who plays Soldier/Paul. I’ll say a bit more later about these double roles; let’s stay in Act I awhile.
Back to the teenage romance: Chris is a missionary’s daughter in Uganda who’s fallen for Adiel; they love each other, and they attempt to perform a “marriage” in the church built by Chris’ missionary parents. They would not approve; neither would Adiel’s friends.
You see, we’re in Uganda, which in recent years has passed draconian laws against what they called “aggravated homosexuality,” punishable by death. Then the law was repealed; now it’s “holding”; but let’s just say that LGBTQ love is not welcome there.
This fact was brought home to me in 2014, when I saw Essential Theatre’s “That Uganda Play,” by Theroun Patterson. This work dealt very powerfully with the dangerous situation in Uganda, where “terror is the given of the place,” as Joan Didion said once about Salvador.
So Chris and Adiel’s romance is idyllic for about 20 minutes, until Pika, a terrified, guilt-ridden child soldier (only 13, I believe) arrives seeking shelter, consolation, and redemption for the violence he has perpetrated. But he’s not too distraught to disapprove mightily of Chris and Adiel’s romance; he is a child of his country.
Then the Soldier (Mr. Demery) arrives and shock and violence that I can’t tell you about here ensue, and suddenly Act I is over.
Act II begins 15 years later in the same church. The time shift is a bit of a jolt; seems somewhat calculated, as opposed to organic. However, one adjusts; most of the people survived, but all four actors are present—got that? I’m not going any further with the plot except to say that Mr. Demery, who played a soldier in Act I, is now Paul, a preacher who has taken over the church formerly run by Chris’ parents. He has a wife.
I think perhaps the playwright takes on too many themes: There’s the Uganda-gay rights issue, which could be a play by itself. And it is (“That Uganda Play,” remember?). Then there’s the aftermath of violence and trauma — another huge issue. The horror of children having to fight an adult war — an entire play could be centered around Pika. The issue of forgiveness and reconciliation could be yet another. And character development suffers: Too many issues are pushed at us at once, even though they’re all important.
Yet one feels Ms. Jung will iron these things out, because she’s undeniably talented. She has a real gift with dialogue as well as empathy for her characters. And once again, these four actors are our heroes: They take a scene and they fly. Director Robinson has done her work seamlessly.
Kat Conley’s scenic design is ingenious — especially her ceiling. You’ll see; it’s quite suspenseful. So is “Cardboard Piano,” for the most part.
For tickets an information, visit actors-express.com.