Chamber Music (April 25-May 10, 2014)

For the first play in their new permanent home, the Midnight Sun, Theater Artists Olympia presents Arthur Kopit’s 1962 absurdist play Chamber Music directed by Pug Bujeaud. I must say that I left the theater at the end of this hour-long, one act-play with indeterminate feelings. I had laughed hard at many of the insane bits, and I admired the talents of the ensemble cast, but I had to mull over the story line and the meaning of the play for quite a while before it began to make sense; and some of it never did and probably never will — that’s the nature of absurdist theater. It’s absurd. It’s not supposed to make sense. And yet it does. It’s like something written by Gertrude Stein, and the reference to Stein is not coincidental.

There were many moments in this play that were laugh-out-loud funny, some funny-when-you-think-about-it parts, and some parts that just left me perplexed. It’s the kind of play highbrow snobs might walk away from unwilling to admit they didn’t get it all. And what is there to get? For starters the whole thing is a metaphor for the cold war between Russia and the United States, which was pretty hot in 1962 (even though the story is set in 1938). It is a feminist play that exposes the vast unfairness in the way women are treated and equates that with the manner in which colorful, eccentric and creative people are deemed insane by the rest of society.

Set in an insane asylum, eight inmates in the women’s ward come together to plan their defense against the men of the men’s ward, whom they believe are planning to attack them. Each of these women believes that she is some famous woman from history, thus the play is filled with literary and historical references. The women are:

  •          Amanda Stevens is “The Woman Who Plays Records” and believes she is the wife of Mozart
  •          Kim Holm is “The Woman in Safari Outfit” who believes she is explorer Osa Johnson (her outfit looks like Teddy Roosevelt)
  •          Kate Ayers is “Woman with Notebook”; i.e. Gertrude Stein
  •          Vanessa Postil is “Girl in Gossamer Dress” or silent film star Pearl White
  •          Cheyenne Logan is the “Woman in Aviatrix Outfit,” aka Amelia Earhart
  •          Priscilla Zal is the “Woman in Queenly Garb,” aka Queen Isabella I of Spain
  •          Alayna Chamberland is the “Woman in Armor” who thinks she is Joan of Arc
  •          and Debbie Sampson is “Woman with Gavel” or Susan B. Anthony.

A couple of men also make appearances. They are “Man in White,” the doctor (Michael Christopher) and “Assistant to the Man in White” (Christopher Rocco), who sort of mimics Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.

The women are all clearly insane — all but Amelia Earhart, played with restraint and class by Logan, who may or may not truly be the pilot who disappeared in 1937.

Opening night Heather Christopher filled in for Zal in the role of Queen Isabella. I’m moved to comment on her performance even though she is not slated for subsequent shows. She enters the room with help in a catatonic state with red-rimmed eyes and a haunted stare and mouths silent words non-stop until she explodes with madness.

Holm is over-the-top wild in her energetic performance as the explorer.

Perhaps the most believable, painful and humorous portrayal of insanity comes from Stevens, who constantly moves her fingers as if playing an instrument and has countless tics and quirks, and a wild, upswept hairdo. She also gets an opportunity to display her operatic voice in song.

Ayers’ obsessiveness and her halted, sing-song way of talking is a spot-on lampoon of Stein, and strange enough to be funny to people who are unfamiliar with Stein’s work.

Postil’s “Girl in Gossamer Dress” is supposed to be a beauty, and she certainly comes with all the physical attributes augmented by a blonde wig and the sheer white dress, and she plays the part in a manner that walks a tightrope between madness and sanity.

Chamberland’s Joan of Arc is outrageously funny. She enters with a classical bit about trying to squeeze a big white wooden cross through the door, and throughout the play she engages in an ongoing war with the voices in her head. With the face shield that she keeps opening and closing and other problems with her armor she brings to mind the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Simpson plays Susan B. Anthony, the leader of the women’s ward, with dignity.

Rocco and Michael Christopher turn in solid performances as the only men in this women’s play.

Nobody is credited in the program for hair, makeup and costuming, so the assumption must be these were a joint effort by cast and crew. They did an excellent job.

Chamber Music is a dark and disturbing farce. I am still ambiguous in my assessment of the script, but I greatly admire the work of the entire cast.