Nike Kadri, Jamar Williams, and Briana Pozner in in Cardboard Piano. Photo by Bill Brymer.
By Hansol Jung
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Review by Rachel White
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Rachel White. All rights reserved.
In a church on New Year’s Eve in a township in Northern Uganda, two young women decide to get married. The girls, Chris (Briana Posner) and Adiel (Nike Kadri) are deliriously young, aware of the danger they are putting themselves in and at the same time completely naïve to it. Chris’s father is an American minister and Adiel is a village girl; the consequences will be severe if either is caught. The scene, beautifully paced, is fraught with the tensions of their predicament. They anxiously hush each other in one moment, blow noisemakers in the next; they are very obviously in love. Then a young boy enters, Pika (Jamar Williams), a conscripted soldier who has been forced to do terrible things by his commanders and the play changes its direction.
The strength of the writing in this first act is the complexity of the characters, and the naturalness of their behavior. Jung is willing to allow them to simply behave, and this is so interesting in the context of what is going on around them. The girls dance to “Unchained Melody”; they record themselves taking vows, and argue over whether Chris should use her full name. It’s the silly arguments in the midst of dangerous situations; the small human details that make the play feel true and authentic. At the same time when Chris comforts Pika with a story about a cardboard piano, and convinces him that he can be good again, it’s a small but also extraordinary act of kindness, and a dramatic one of a variety rarely seen in plays.
The actors rise to the challenge of the writing with brave performances that are unpredictable, at times unsettling, and emotionally raw. Nika Kadri plays Adiel, and later Ruth, with playful grace, and an expressive face that moves easily from amusement to fear. This contrasts with Posner’s anxious vulnerability, and William’s portrayal of Pika’s absolute despair.
The second act of the play moves to the future, and this is where it loses some of the freshness, if not the momentum and energy of the opening act. The confrontation between Pika and Chris over deeds committed in the first act feels obligatory rather than a natural continuation of the story. Part of the issue may be in the choice to use a different actor for Pika in Act II, Michael Luowye, who plays the Soldier in Act I. Luowye is a wonderful actor and a little dangerous but his new role as Pika disrupts the emotional continuity between the acts. It forced me to intellectualize Chris’s emotional response to seeing Pika again rather than to simply experience it along with her. Within the scene itself however are some incredible moments of emotional tension. When Pika becomes aware that Chris has recognized him, he becomes so agitated that he snaps at Ruth to please leave. Ruth’s shock, the stunned expression on her face, at his loss of temper is the most telling sign of the man he has become, someone who doesn’t lose it likes this very often.
Cardboard Piano is a play with a great heart at its center that I suspect is still finding it’s footing, with scenes of rich, complex characters, humor and muscular writing.
March 25 – April 10, 2016
Part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Rachel White received her MFA in playwriting from the New School for Drama, and her BA in English and Dramatic from Centre College. Her plays have been produced in New York at The New School, the Midtown International Theatre Festival and the American Globe Theater, in Los Angeles at Moving Arts Productions and the Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA. In Louisville, she has had productions at the Slant Culture Theatre Festival, the Tim Faulkner Gallery, and Finnigan Productions. She is a recipient of the Litwin Foundation Fellowship in Playwriting, and was recently a semi-finalist in the Labute New Theater Festival. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, and the Playwrights Gallery in New York.