nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
August 18, 2011
Karmia Chan Cao’s new musical Pawn comes to the New York International Fringe Festival at the dawn of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The story follows Abraham (Alex Kaneko), a Canadian of Chinese decent who has joined the armed forces in bitter response to his elder brother Kai’s death at the World Trade Center. Years serving in the heat of Afghanistan have finally tempered Abe’s rage and he is set to complete his tour of duty in mere days when he finds himself under fiery siege in a town he is patrolling.
Abraham is knocked unconscious during the blasts, sending him into a wrinkle in time referred to as The Pawnshop: a place of rest where he can weigh his options before making his next move. Does he save the life of a baby and two young boys huddled in the midst of the fire storm, or does he run and save himself? Helping Abe in these deliberations are a life-sized version of his favorite childhood army figure, Lego (Graham Roth), and Abe’s mother (in a stand-out performance by Sarah Guerrero) who has showed up in an astral projection of sorts in an attempt to intervene.
There are subplots, of course. Shea (Alicia Triana), the family's youngest daughter, has bought a bus ticket to visit the WTC site in an attempt to get some personal closure over what has happened to her family. Abraham’s girlfriend, Halifax (Briana Mitchell), unmentioned in the first act, makes an appearance in the second. Finally, Cao takes us on a detour through Vancouver’s Chinatown to illustrate the immigrant experience that marks the countries of North America while providing some back story on Abe’s parents. While these subplots add dimension to the piece, the storyline involving Abe’s girlfriend, in particular, could stand to be fleshed out and incorporated throughout the play.
Most members of the young cast are currently enrolled or recently graduated from Stanford. Some have previous theatre experience while others have fascinating majors. Many of the performers in this production are not formally trained singers and would not have been heard over the band without their mics. It did not help matters that only some of the cast were miced, resulting in sound spikes and some terrible muffled feedback in places. In any regard, plugging trained voices into these roles in the future will make all the difference.
Pawn marks the second work for the stage for Cao, who is a senior at Stanford University majoring in creative writing. Here she has written, composed and directed an ambitious two-and-a-half hour modern folk-rock musical with 19 songs, a full cast and a live band. This would be a huge undertaking by anyone's standards. Mention is made in the program of an assistant musical director, but it would seem Cao took the lead there, as well. She even plays the drums onstage with the band during the production.
What she has accomplished in creating this musical, getting it staged and performing it in South Korea, China and Canada before landing it here at the New York International Fringe Festival is considerable. That said, I suspect that things will really take off for Renaissance woman Cao once she learns to embrace delegating. While Cao did have the assistance of choreographer Alisha Mitchell, the hand jive choreography prevalent in the group numbers left me wondering if Mitchell is either a huge fan of Glee or perhaps has a background in cheerleading.
Costume designer Leanna Keyes opts for plaid in most of the scenes taking place in Canada and keeps things standard issue camouflage in Afghanistan. I was grateful for the glasses that aged the otherwise youthful Guerrero; Julian Kusnadi as the introspective Ba could also have used some graying. Set designer Michael Cohen creates a family-owned convenience store display with a myriad cereal boxes and a prominently displayed photograph of departed son Kai. Also utilized are four canvas-covered columns across the back of the stage that rotate to show painted scenes depicting the mountain lakes of Canada, the deserts of Afghanistan, and the city skyline of New York City. Unfortunately, whoever was assigned to turn the cubes frequently flipped them to the wrong face or forgot to move them entirely. Lighting designer Michael Rooney bathes the desert scenes in a hot yellow and switches to cool blues for the northern climes.
In the further workshopping of this piece, Cao’s pleasant score could be made even more memorable with stronger lyrical hooks. The aid of both an experienced director and musical director would provide greater focus for the production as a whole while helping to avoid traffic wrecks of harmony. That said, the undertaking of this massive production by all concerned is a notable effort, and I look forward to seeing the next incarnation. Above all, keep your eyes peeled for the name of Karmia Chan Cao. She is one to watch.