Pidgin English Productions

at Talisman Theatre

I’m stumped. I sat through Pidgin English’s production of Chamber Music. I listened and watched carefully. I even read the play the following day. And I still can’t make heads or tails of the show.

Possibly this absurdist piece just doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities. Absurdist theater generally leaves me pretty cold; I tend to feel that playwrights who create such works spend more energy bandying about clever theatrical non sequiturs than using those non sequiturs to illuminate any end. Certainly that was my response to Chamber Music.

Written by Arthur Kopit (whose other pieces also leave me rather cold, though for being too didactic rather than too ambiguous), Chamber Music is set in what appears to be the women’s wing in an insane asylum. Gathered together are eight women who think they’re famous historical figures–Gertrude Stein, Joan of Arc, Queen Isabella, Susan B. Anthony, Pearl White, Osa Johson, Amelia Earhart, and Mrs. Mozart. They have assembled for the “Sixth Annual Meeting of the Duly-Elected Grievance and Someday-Governing Committee of Wing Five, Women’s Section.”

The proceedings, of course, are a complete shambles, as each tends to her own personal mania or they all bicker among themselves. Joan of Arc (Kathleen Dunne), for example, keeps complaining that she hears voices and that her armored pants are rusting. The only person apparently uninvolved in the madness is Amelia Earhart (Rachel Singer)–and the play implies she may be Earhart. She simply watches from a distance, wearing an exhausted, defeated smile. Each of the other women enacts the stereotype of her historical precedent: Osa Johnson (Julie Standora) stalks mosquitoes, Mrs. Mozart (Karen Gundersen) plays records of her husband’s music, Gertrude Stein (Jill Towsley) records the minutes of the meeting in ridiculously repetitive fashion, and Isabella (Louise Bylicki) sits silently throughout most of the play with a black veil covering her face.

These nearly mythic figures collide all too literally, providing some wonderfully silly and often slapstick humor. Joan of Arc enters, for example, wielding an enormous cross that she can barely negotiate through the door. Finally she says, “Oh, shit. Well, for chrissakes one of you help me with this thing!” Pearl White (Sue Cargill), star of silent films, sits nervously withdrawn, worried that trains nowadays travel at such speeds that being rescued in time will be a near impossibility. Gertrude Stein continually stuffs brownies into her mouth.

Yet during the first half of the play there seems to be little or no dramatic reason for Kopit to have brought these women together. They have nothing specific to accomplish; there’s no momentum to move the play forward. The women behave in such obvious, stereotypical ways that this extraordinary meeting of minds produces no revelations. Instead Kopit makes the women fight pettily and endlessly among themselves. Early in the play everyone gangs up on Joan of Arc for bringing her enormous cross into the room. This argument goes on for a good five minutes, but since Kopit has given the cross no thematic or metaphorical significance, and doesn’t develop any later, the scene seems utterly inconsequential.

Finally Susan B. Anthony (Elliot Jackson) mentions that the women’s wing may be attacked by the men’s wing–immediate measures must be taken to confront and alleviate the danger. This crisis finally brings some stakes to the characters’ situation, and the last half of the play is dramatically much more successful than the first. But despite that success, the impending threat seems so arbitrary that the play is deprived of weight. Had danger been looming over the proceedings from the very beginning, my involvement with the characters and their situation would have been much greater.

Even once the central crisis has been established, that does little to bring together the apparent nonsense of the first half. The play’s feminist agenda is altogether facile, implying that men are so threatened by strong, independent women that they must lock them up (the only asylum officials we see are men). The most interesting association I carried away from the play centered on our culture’s tendency to label visionary women as crazy. After all, “hysteria” comes from hyster-, meaning womb. But these associations were based more on what I brought to the play personally than on anything in the play itself.

Given this extremely problematic script, the cast of Chamber Music delivers surprisingly affecting though often restrained performances. While the level of acting ability varies greatly among the eight women, each delivers at least one terrific scene. Cargill as Pearl White and Singer as Amelia Earhart give particularly inspired performances, mostly because they play every scene straight, as if unaware of their own insanity. Much of the time the other actresses acknowledge that their behavior is curious, in effect showing the audience their cards, undercutting the scenes’ reality.

Director Kerry Reid’s greatest strength is her ability to coax committed performances from a relatively untrained cast. But she missed the opportunity to shape these performances into a larger, clearer whole. Of course the play itself makes such an attempt nearly impossible, but I longed for a stronger sense of Reid’s personal take on the material. For much of the play she establishes no clear focus, so that significant and inconsequential moments carry the same weight. Reid needs to show her audience where to look from one minute to the next, especially in a play this confused. Without that focus the actresses seem somewhat lost onstage, often resorting to minor stage business that clutters rather than illuminates the scene. Because of the clutter, any meaning in the play is difficult to find.