The Piano Teacher, next up at Rep Stage, may unsettle you, but mum’s the word about just what it’s going to unsettle you about. “You think the play is going to go one place,” says Kasi Campbell, “and because it’s a chiller, it goes a place you don’t expect it to go.”
Campbell, directing this, her 27th show at Rep Stage, is keeping the play’s many secrets. The seven year-old script by Julia Cho (known to DC audiences for The Language Archive, which played at Forum two years ago) concerns an old widow, the enigmatically-named Mrs. K, who one days decides to look up some of her former piano students instead of merely reminiscing about them. And that’s all we’re supposed to know before we go in – the rest is a particular kind of mystery.
“It’s a chiller – slightly different than a thriller,” says Campbell. “You lead them down one path only at the last moment to yank them” someplace else. As for what happens at that ‘someplace else,’ Campbell thinks “people will be very moved. I’m quite moved at the end of rehearsals.”
Again without saying exactly what, actor Laureen E. Smith, portraying the titular Mrs. K, remarks that “It hits [the audience] as something that’s relevant in their own lives.”
So what can this powerful theme be? Especially since it’s conveyed through what sounds like a very simple story, an old woman’s reconnection with past students. I know no more about the plot than you do – it opens February 5, and I did not see the previous productions in California or elsewhere – I’m not holding out on you. So what do you and I have to latch on to besides the promise that the play will “pack a wallop,” as Campbell says? Quite a bit, it turns out, especially if we more deeply consider that little bit of the plot that has been set out for us.
“I will say that this play is based on an idea that Julia Cho got once upon a time, that her old piano teacher had once called her,” says Campbell. Cho wondered if she lived up to the expectations of her old teacher, who presumably once was quite invested in Cho’s future. Campbell thinks that feeling is something we can all relate to.
“I think also,” Campbell continues, “everyone in the cast has taught at one point in their lives, and that relationship between student and teacher – where the boundaries are, the expectations are, the disappointments are” is familiar for everyone. “[We’ve all] taught someone who had great potential.”
Perhaps we think we have an idea what this play might be addressing – relations between teachers and students not infrequently featuring in the news these days – if we are inclined to guess. But the critical response to previous productions suggests much more than some lurid ripped-from-the-headlines scandal plot or cheap shock story. Moreover, there appears to be a great deal more to the play – and even more mystery to the play – than simply having an unrevealed plot.
“I think one of the interesting challenges about this play is that the lead actor speaks directly to the audience” as she reminisces about the past, says Campbell, and enters into and out of flashbacks, reminisces, and soliloquy. “You… slide from reality into past and back into reality so quickly” that it’s disorienting.
Smith relishes the uncertainty. “Every single line – is this to me, is this to the audience, is this a memory, is this a hallucination?” Together, Smith and Campbell have taken particular care deciding, with every single line, whether Mrs. K is talking to the audience or not, and whether she in the past or back in present reality or wherever else she might end up. Cho’s script doesn’t specify which lines are spoken to whom or in what time period – it’s all been up to the artistic team.
“It’s almost like unravelling it to knit it back together – it’s an enormous challenge, and a fun challenge,” Smith says.
Challenges abound for a play like this, but for the director and cast, one thing that may have been a challenge when working on other productions turns out to be a boon, given the play’s obscure nature.
“I don’t think any of us have worked together,” Smith says, and Campbell concurs: “All the members of the cast are new faces to me.” While Campbell is an established director here in own, Smith, who currently resides in Vancouver, has not been in DC for a “long time.”
The personal unfamiliarity amongst the cast means “we don’t have the shorthand” that long-time collaborators might have, Campbell says. “So that makes [us] talk things out, and that’s good because we don’t make any assumptions – it’s kind of a fresh clean slate.”
Turning challenges into strengths may be something a play like this particularly calls for. “As an actor, the role is phenomenally challenging, there are so many layers about her,” says Smith. “There is a particular presentation about her, but there [are many] deep, deep layers to her.”
Perhaps that may also be the case for the audience’s experience – when we see this, we may find ourselves moving through multiple layers of responses as we journey through the surprises and twists. Yet in the end, if that mystery journey were to be all that the play has to offer, we wouldn’t think Campbell and Smith would be so excited to work on it.
THE PIANO TEACHER
Closes February 23, 2014
Rep Stage at the
Howard Community College
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
Tickets: $35 – $40
Wednesdays thru Sundays
“The play is so deftly written, that it’s not so much a mystery as a profound journey that the audience takes with Mrs. K. So I don’t feel I’m keeping anything from them – just the opposite, as an actor it’s my job to tell Mrs. K’s story from her point of view (even if that view is, well, inaccurate or perhaps even problematic). So I’m actually inviting them into my world, into my thinking and feeling, into my memory. Now, it’s that memory that is the issue…”
Smith continues, “The writing is amazing. It’s natural and poetic at the same time, which is so hard to do… the story is incredibly engaging, how applicable it is to human nature.” The Piano Teacher has a lot to say “about memory – what we remember, how we remember, storytelling, truthtelling, lies. It’s really spot-on about human nature.”
“It’s very moving and unsettling,” Campbell says. And, ultimately, the “unsettling-ness” may be part and parcel of the moving quality of the story. Our lack of foreknowledge as the audience going in is more than a gimmick; it’s part of the emotional plan laid out for us, that we come in uncertain and leave unsettled. Because “Unsettled,” says Campbell, “is a great way to leave the audience. I think if you’re unsettled, then you have to work things out with the people who saw it with you.”
“Because it’s not a mystery but a chiller,” adds Smith, making that crucial differentiation, “my hope is that everyone will see bits of themselves throughout the entire story.”