To come from the wilderness and savagery of existence and to make the choice to be good; that is what separates the humans from the beasts, the civilized from chaos and disorder. But is it so simple a choice when those driving forces of primitive carnality surface, and how simply does one choose to turn a blind eye to such monstrosities even if they are only formulated in story? The answers await twisted amid the story in The Piano Teacher written by Julia Cho, premiering at Rep Stage. Directed by Helen Hayes Award winner and Rep Stage veteran Kasi Campbell, this chilling yet evocative work will unsettle even the calmest and most civilized of minds with its deftly crafted darkness, smoothly wound into a seemingly harmless tale.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger creates a quaint but comfortable living space. While covering the walls in rich rosy mauve floral wallpaper and keeping the furnishings well-worn but well-loved, Ettinger creates an eerie sense of tranquility in the space. There is something slightly unnerving about how perfect and calm the interior of Mrs. K’s house appears and at first, juxtaposed against her rather simplistic and cheerful nature, the space feels inviting. But as the metaphorical darkness creeps out of the play’s dialogue and character encounters Ettinger’s strategic use of a color not dissimilar to blood feels particularly poignant. Even the subtle symbolism that Ettinger infuses into decorating the piano; a simple shawl drape over the back of it, trying to use something simple and beautiful to cover up something darker and more ominous. This serves as a direct reflection of the story’s main plot twist; brilliant insight on Ettinger’s behalf.
Director Kasi Campbell blurs the lines of the play’s reality with that of our own in a way that feels off-putting. Having Mrs. K addressing the audience is acceptable for the bulk of the story’s narrative, but having her wander off stage and down into the house to offer the audience a cookie, pestering at the viewers until someone takes one, breaks the fourth wall in a way that feels out of place for this production. Sitting in her chair offering cookies to the metaphysical audience that the play’s narrative addresses would have been a better choice so as not to compromise the integrity of the play. Creating unnecessary audience interaction in a drama robs the audience of the chance to fully connect with the character and their emotions.
The two minor characters in this production are what carries the emotional depth and gravity of the story as it unfolds. Two former piano students, Mary (Kashi-Tara) and Michael (Joshua Morgan), expose the darkness beneath the sweet exterior of this deceptively simple story. It is Kashi-Tara’s performance as the fully grown but realistically grounded former student that helps focus the story in the present reality while still reflecting vividly to the past. Her initial encounter with Mrs. K— via telephone exchange, staged in a far corner off of the actual set— allows the audience to encounter a static woman that evolves into more than meets the eye. Though Kashi-Tara’s appearances on stage are brief, her presence is felt, especially once she allows the darker emotions to seep into her voice, steeping her portrayal in frustration and fright from a past long gone.
Mrs. K (Laureen E. Smith) is introduced as a stereotypical elderly woman with a sweet personality. Smith’s uneven portrayal of this stereotype leaves the first half of the performance feeling very presentational; a forced effort to showcase her ability to be a sweet old lady as the stereotype would define it. Her body is hunched, which is an excellent portrayal of an elderly woman, closing in on her person either from arthritis or from the constant chill that is prone to those of an older age; but it’s the fashion in which she speaks that leads her astray into the territory of ‘trying too hard to achieve a character.’ Her accent wanders in and out throughout the production, making it unclear if she too is meant to be from her husband’s old country, a different country, or if she’s trying to create a basis for the set.
In the second half of the performance, once she encounters Michael – her emotions are running high and are well articulated, but come across as overdone.There is a complete disconnect between the slightly confused woman in the first half, who appears to be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and the perfectly cognizant and coherent and frightened woman in the second half. They are two completely different people with no unifying trait, Smith’s physicality even changes in the second half, her slow shuffling arthritis a shadow of her former self from not 20 minutes prior. It is disappointing to see the story’s primary narrator so out of sorts, when the story itself is otherwise quite brilliant.
On the other hand, Morgan’s performance is startling, bordering on disturbing. From the moment he arrives at Mrs. K’s front door it is evident just from the glint in his eye and the slight tilt of his head that he is mentally off-kilter. Morgan’s portrayal of this damaged former-student is rather thrilling in a most disturbing fashion. He is compelling in a chaotic sense, something dark and sinister unfurling from within him with every awkward phrase he speaks until he comes fully into his rant. The emotional eruption that explodes from deep within the bowels of his tortured soul is haunting and terrifying. The severe edge Morgan uses in his delivery of this monologue sets spines tingling as he gnashes through the truth of his encounters in the house as a student. It’s an exceptionally stunning performance!
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.
The Piano Teacher plays through February 23, 2014 in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Rep Stage— Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.