Wrekless Watson and Andrea Agosto in "Cardboard Piano." Photograph by Simpatika
Sometimes the best theater is disturbing, and Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, at least in Act One, is certainly that. So sudden is its violence and so unredeemable the consequences thereof that its characters seem to hang in mute suspension for the rest of the production,. But they don’t. The internal churning and anguish of the two who survive to the second act is nearly as wrenching as what preceded it. For these two characters, each his/her own definition of victim, forgiveness and catharsis are elusive. For the audience at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights, which is staging the West Coast premiere of Cardboard Piano, there is little relief, but much enlightenment.
In Jung’s story set in Northern Uganda initially on the night of the new millennium (Dec. 31, 1999), the Ugandan teen Adiel (Andrea Agosto) is celebrating her engagement to her white lover Chris (Kate Rose Reynolds,), who happens to be the daughter of the pastor of the church in which they are making their pact. Theirs is a profound but forbidden love, but they proceed undaunted – until a wayward soldier named Pika (John Wells III) barges in on them, wounded and desperate. The fourth personage in this tautly unfolding scenario is a deadly armed soldier (Wrekless Watson) who arrives looking for the fugitive, and it isn’t long from there that Act One’s fuse runs out. At a recent performance, members of the audience gasped in the darkness, and why was understandable.
The second act of Cardboard Piano, set 15 years later in the same church, concerns itself with atonement, and while its events are less devastating than those before intermission, they are in their own way equally startling.
Jacole Kitchen directs an ensemble at Diversionary that seethes with intensity. Among them, Watson, seen last year in Intrepid Theatre Company’s excellent Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1,2, 3, is even better in this play, mostly in Act Two, in which his character “Paul” harbors a secret that spills out like blood.
Cardboard Piano is an unsettling but important work.
Cardboard Piano continues through Feb. 25.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.