Take your medicine
Chico State’s version of absurdist play yields mixed results
This past Monday night, as hooting revelers at Madison Bear Garden exploded next door in celebration of the S.F. Giants clinching the World Series, I ducked into the Wismer Theatre, the cozy black box at the center of Chico State’s Performing Arts Center. It was the final dress rehearsal of the department’s latest production, Arthur Kopit’s 1962 absurdist one-act, Chamber Music (showing through Nov. 7), and inside the mood was instantly turned upside down.
In the center of a large, coldly lit stage sat a chair with straps that looked like a cross between a dentist’s chair and a bondage device. The house lights were still up, but the creepy prop, accompanied by the somber piano and spooky vocals of Peter Gabriel’s dramatic rendition of The Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage,” created an instant foreboding.
I was ready for something dark and challenging (maybe even “absurd”), but despite the pitch-perfect setup, what followed was a mixed bag—filled with one trick (the first half), and one treat (the second half), as it were.
In its original form, Chamber Music focuses on a meeting at an insane asylum attended by a group of eight women confined there. The women are afraid that the residents of the men’s ward will attack them soon, and they are plotting how to protect themselves. Each of the eight believes she is a different famous woman from history—Gertrude Stein, Joan of Arc, Susan B. Anthony, Queen Isabella I of Spain, explorer Osa Johnson, silent-film star Pearl White, Constanze Mozart (wife of the composer) and Amelia Earhart (who appears to actually be who she says she is). In its darkly slapstick way, Kopit’s play is meant to shine a light on how women (even, perhaps especially, those strong and independent women who make history) have been unjustly treated and labeled by men throughout time.
And in this final rehearsal, director Katie Whitlock and company handle that scene and the original play really well. The asylum is alive with performances, costumes, lighting and sound that all contribute to the range of fears and nuttiness in a way that evokes that epitome of mental-ward settings—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
But none of this happens until about 40 minutes in. The first half of the play was actually constructed by the company members themselves.
In the program, Whitlock explains that cast and crew all contributed to the creation of the work, saying, “With the additions made by our company, this work has become something more.” The result is a first half that admirably tries to expose some of the thoughts and actions that created the kinds of asylums—literally and figuratively—that men have relegated women to throughout time. But both in the amount of time it takes to deliver it and in primarily using four carbon-copy doctor/orderlies to bark out historical quotes on the subject, this first half is hard to get through and ultimately subtracts more than it adds to the production.
However, as dully as the first half is presented, the second half (when the original play starts) comes to life in a vibrant way. Almost without exception, the students play the female inmates as wonderfully distinct characters, at once clashing with and empathizing with one another in this terrible place.
Sepi Bugiani does great work as Woman with Notebook (aka Gertrude Stein)—alternately concerned and delighted as she fiddles nervously with her hands and blurts out quotes from literature and tongue-in-cheek rhymes—as do Hannah Louise Moore as Woman in Safari Outfit (Osa Johnson) and Stephanie Sousa as Girl in Gossamer Dress (Pearl White).
The Woman in Armor (Joan of Arc), played with goofy-yet-impassioned zeal by McKenna Perry (she’s hearing voices, and her pants are rusting!), is a really great character. In fact Perry’s character, alongside Hannah Covington-Bernard’s of Woman who Plays Records (Mozart), are so compelling that its doubly frustrating that the meat of their parts was put off for so long.
I love that Chico State uses its resources, facilities and faculty on such challenging selections (and I have especially enjoyed the experimental productions in which Whitlock has had a hand), and I applaud them once more for not playing it safe and meeting this play’s absurdist challenge on so many fronts and with such zeal.
Simply put, they tried something new, and it didn’t really work.
There is still something here to recommend, however. There is good mayhem awaiting in the second half, just know you’ll have to wait to enjoy it.