My experience at the Kitchen Theatre Company’s The Piano Teacher was so disorienting that I find it quite difficult to put my feelings to words, however I will try, for all the good in me that seeks to save Ithaca from this play. Playwright Julia Cho works alongside director Diego Arciniegas to bring to life a story that seems it would be much better off numb in its grave. The Piano Teacher is a narrative about – you guessed it – a piano teacher, who reminisces about fond memories with her many students. Lonely after her husband’s death, lead Mrs. K (Beth Dixon) reaches out to her former students with the hopes of reconnecting. After receiving visits from two students, Michael (Matthew J. Harris) and Mary Fields (Amelia Windom), she is informed of the disturbing reason as to why her students have not kept in better touch: her deceased husband Mr. K. With an audience of exclusively senior citizens and a dead-ended plot, I had absolutely no desire to dust the cobwebs off of what could have been here.
Dixon begins the show with a friendly monologue that showcases her impeccable talent as an actress. Her acting was the only thing that centered me amongst the discombobulation that was the show’s plotline. Dixon’s unapologetic emotion, including the passionate tears she shed at the end of the play, tethered the audience to the theater. She was the rope, our ground and all I wish is that the play ended after her initial monologue and saved itself some veracity. Following her lengthy introductory speech, the Kitchen Theatre takes us nowhere but down the kitchen sink, into a deep, dark drain of sinistery and mayhem.
We begin to follow Mrs. K’s journey to locating and reuniting with her students, expecting to see quaint interactions and reminiscent conversations, however we are wrong. As the story progresses, we find that Mr. K has relayed disturbing stories of his dark past to Mrs. K’s former students, involving sexual assault and murder, leading them to quit their lessons. We witness Mrs. K’s jumbled emotions as she grapples with learning that her beloved husband did such questionable things. Feelings appear raw and real, but they are jumbled up in a weak storyline about a piano teacher.
While I never thought I would say this, because we theatre-geeks largely encounter quite the opposite, I will say it now: I wish that this play was more predictable. I see what The Piano Teacher was striving for. It was attempting to give us a unique and interesting plot twist, however all it did was smack the keys and give us a dissonant chord — and much too loudly.This rings especially true when Mrs. K suddenly receives creepy prank calls from a former student, which to me were highly uncalled for. What began as a interesting story on growth, memory, and love, quickly became a disturbing tale about a piano teacher’s eerie household.
That being said, the show’s set design was well done (Steve Teneyck). Space was utilized interestingly, with a back room that led to the theatre’s engaging three-dimensional quality. The main stage and piano room had charming decor, with edible cookies as a prop, which Mrs. K so intimately handed out in the beginning of the performance (nothing less than what we would expect from a Kitchen Theatre production). In the context of play, however, the set created the oddest juxtaposition between your sweet grandmother’s house and a home straight out of American Horror Story. With the show’s contagiously reminiscent tone, and as a pianist, I found myself questioning the safety and authenticity of my former piano teacher’s house, which I once found so warm and cozy. It’s safe to say that my memories of her were successfully tainted.
While the show was off-puttingly cynical and quite uncomfortable, my main problem with The Piano Teacher were the upsetting and controversial topics that were introduced and then abruptly shut down. The play dances around heavy topics like sexual assault, abuse, race, and PTSD. Producing Artistic Director M. Bevin O’Gara writes in her notes to the audience, “Theatre and the power of the stories we are able to tell in this medium [the theatre] feels more vital than it ever has before.” Well, true. But covering up serious subject matter with a major key chord and a little tune won’t and didn’t accomplish that.
All in all, one of the only good things I got out of this performance was a reminder to send my middle school piano teacher a Facebook friend request. I left The Kitchen Theatre Company’s The Piano Teacher touched by Dixon’s performance, however utterly jarred and confused at the fact that such heavy topics could be so carelessly dropped into my lap and just left there. If you’d like to see talent and you’re skilled at separating acting from story (which a lot of people detached from the critical-theatre world have difficulty doing), then go for it. See The Piano Teacher. But if you wish to keep your sanity, save your fond memories of your music teacher and salvage your Friday night, stay home.
Juliette Rolnick is a junior in the College of Arts an Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]