New Rep's "Cardboard Piano": In Need of Fine Tuning

Rachel Cognata & Marge Dunn in "Cardboard Piano"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Cardboard Piano by South Korean playwright Hansol Jung, the current production by New Rep Watertown in its New England premiere, is set in its first act in Northern Uganda at the turn of the millennium (facts not noted in the program but only gradually revealed in the course of the performance). It begins with a meeting of a local Ugandan girl, Adiel (Rachel Cognata) and Chris (Marge Dunn), the daughter of American missionaries. Both are teenagers (though the actresses who portray them obviously are not), whose lesbian love story has developed in secret during the growing civil war. Just as they have completed their vows in their private ceremony, they are interrupted by the arrival of an escaping child soldier Pika (Marc Pierre) and a gun-bearing Soldier (Michael Ofori) hunting him. The first act ends tragically, though predictably.

Michael Ofori in "Cardboard Piano"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The second act takes place some fifteen years later in the same locale (again no program note reveals this); several of the characters are eventually shown to be connected to one another, namely a subsequent pastor, Paul (Ofori again) and his wife Ruth (Cognata again) as well as a young gay congregant, Francis (Pierre again). As the play winds down, we are presented with the fact that there still exist deep roots of hate and bigotry, especially with regard to homophobia, while we also experience the discovery of the power of forgiveness. That's about as specific as one can be without giving away some crucial plot points.

Marge Dunn, Marc Pierre & Rachel Cognata in "Cardboard Piano"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The arc of the play, over two hours, needs some fine tuning, especially to engage sooner with the audience, as the characters and their issues are revealed. As Directed by Benny Sato Ambush, the four actors who comprise the entire cast manage with varying degrees of success to convey their conflicts. Of the seven roles portrayed in this mounting, the most memorable is that of Cognata's depiction of Ruth, who ably expresses her growing realization of what has occurred in the past that is so profoundly echoed in the present. With respect to the creative team's contributions, the clever Scenic Design is by Jon Savage, with Costume Design by Leslie Held, Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

Marge Dunn & Michael Ofori in "Cardboard Piano"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Though occasionally encumbered by what might be viewed as rookie missteps for this young playwright (whose thesis project at Yale School of Drama was this work), there are important spiritual crises dealt with here. It's unfortunate that they are at least in part diminished by some coincidences that skirt the parameters of credulity. Whatever its shortcomings, it asks a few fundamental questions, one of which Director Sato Ambush demands in his own program notes: “What kind of God believes some of His creation are born wrong”?

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