Josh Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. He is a writer for Choice The Musical and half of the comedy duo Flanders. Josh is a contributor for Chicago Reader and Chicagoland Musical Theatre, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory. He is co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Kearstyn Kelle and Adia Alli. Photo by Justin Barbin
By Josh Flanders
CARDBOARD PIANO by Hansol Jung, TimeLine Theatre’s latest production, offers a raw look at a forbidden relationship in war-torn Uganda at the turn of the millennium, and the aftermath 14 years later. It explores many weighty issues, including people’s stereotypes and judgments of one another, the role of religion, and if forgiveness is possible even for those who do terrible things. This play has beautiful moments of intimacy, singing, and (as the poster portrays) interracial love. It is honest, tragic, and raises many important questions without providing answers.
The first half, which takes place on New Year’s Eve 1999, opens with a poignant wedding between two women in a dilapidated church, one American and one Ugandan, and yet (trigger warning) there are also guns, knives, and broken glass. And who doesn’t love a good emotional rollercoaster when seeing a drama? Yet when drama is written only for drama’s sake, and not from the motivation of characters, it can come off as insincere. Not to minimize the political and social unrest, the tragedy of child soldiers, nor the impossible situation of being in the position to be forced to commit unthinkable horrific acts as a child, but as a piece of written work, Cardboard Piano has a lack of sophisticated writing that keeps one outside the story. It is difficult to connect with these characters who are simply drawn, lack nuance, and often have dialogue that is either on the nose or clunky. Much of the action in the first half relies on ham-fisted clichés as a replacement for well-crafted plot development.
And yet the first half, for all its predictability, plants the seed setting up the second half, the anniversary of the wedding years later, where a more interesting plot blossoms. Jeffrey D. Kmiec has designed a beautiful set, enhanced by Brandon Wardell’s lighting which brings the church to life. Here the issue of what it takes to forgive, and what is necessary to truly make amends, comes to greater fruition and provides a more satisfying dramatic exploration. American or Ugandan, gay or straight, every person is the victim is where and how they were born, with all their preconceived notions and imperfections. There are no perfect people in this play or in real life. Every person must make sense of their sins and find a way to make peace.
Of the cast of four, Kai A. Ealy especially stands out as both a soldier in the first half, and church minister in the second. His portratal is the most honest, and his commitment and intensity as an actor do a great deal to keep this play connected to something authentic. The two characters are both complex, flawed, tragic, and very interesting, even if not always likable. Adia Alli is wonderful as Adiel, the Ugandan bride in the first half, and continues bringing tremendous energy as Ealy’s wife after intermission..
One of the great things about TimeLine Theatre is their interactive lobby displays tracing the history surrounding their plays while also engaging guests to participate in a discussion. And this production is no exception. Kudos to Dina Spoerl. Yet when the display competes with the performance in terms of engaging the viewer, it might be time for a rewrite.
CARDBOARD PIANO runs through March 17. For more information visit timelinetheatre.com.