An American Songbook
Grade school assembly or theatrical piece?
|The House Theatre of Chicago presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
With Ploughed Under, the immensely talented percussionist/composer Kevin O’Donnell (finally) gets an entire show founded on his prodigious skills. By re-imagining close to 20 folk songs, O’Donnell and his nine-person ensemble/band put a spotlight on a wide spectrum of Americana , delving the sounds and stories of the United States from the ancient love ballads of Native Americans to the rhythmic work songs that marked the dawn of the Industrial Age and the advent of skyscrapers.
The cast – a multi-faceted group that provides accompaniment on piano, guitar, ukulele, horns, violin and spoons in addition to singing – is an engaging, charismatic lot that brings vibrancy and vigor to numbers both obscure (The Ballad of Virginia Dale) and iconic (Casey Jones’ Final Ride.) But for all its considerable strengths, Ploughed Under often plays more like a presentation at a grade school assembly than a theater piece aimed at an audience of all ages. The songs are interspersed with expositional anecdotes that provide both historical context to the music, but that exposition ("Let’s make a place for Squanto at our Thanksgiving table") often is delivered with a tone that’s far more didactic than theatrical. Instead of a dramatic arc, Ploughed Under provides a straightforward, text-bookish timeline as ensemble members fill in the blanks around the building of the transcontinental railroad, the legend of John Henry and the tragedy of Wounded Knee. Instead of leading the audience to a sense of discovery, Ploughed Under simply lays out the facts.
That said, the piece is skillfully performed as the cast moves across a wide variety of styles, from the joyful, insouciant reggae-tinged beats of “No Cross, No Crown” to the dirge-like melancholy of “The Army of the Dead”. Moreover, O’Donnell’s direction keeps things (literally) moving against the folk-art, wooden-flag backdrop of Collette Pollard‘s ingenious night-club-meets-hootenanny scenic design. In one particularly effective number, the horror of slave culture is depicted both in song (It Was a Mournful Scene Indeed) and movement as ensemble member Abu Ansari find himself trapped behind the wooden slats of that massive flag: The emblem of the nation becomes a prison cell, and the plight of African Americans in the slave holding south is highlighted both in sight and sound.
The cast sounds fantastic, whether it’s nailing tight, a cappella harmonies or backed by a full, rousing complement of keyboards, strings and horns. The ensemble also makes inventive use of non-traditional instruments, beating out rhythms by shaking canned goods, keeping complex time with a set of jangling spoons or becoming human drum sets by slapping their hands and stomping their feet.
Pollard has transformed the upstairs space in the Chopin Theatre into an intimate club setting, with the audience gathered around candlelit tables that the cast occasionally uses as extensions of the stage. Homespun and impassioned, Ploughed Under offers a heart-felt foray into American history. Would that it were structured more like a drama and less like an grade school history lesson.
Ploughed Under continues through June 9th at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 7pm. Tickets are $25, and are available by phone (773-769-3832) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheHouseTheatre.com.
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Kevin O’Donnell, Maria McCullough, Yavi Pechardo, Matt Martin
behind the scenes
Kevin O’Donnell (composer, director), Collette Pollard (set design), Lee Keenan (lighting), Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes), Michael Griggs, Joshua Horvath (sound design), Chad Kenward, Dixie Uffelman (dramaturg), Sarah Hoeferlin (stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)