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Theatre Review: Ad Hoc’s Uproarious, Incisive Revival of ‘Chamber Music’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Ad Hoc’s Uproarious, Incisive Revival of ‘Chamber Music’(l-r) Nikki Davis, Acacia Duncan and Kate Jones in an ad hoc theatre company's production of Chamber Music - Photo by Jerri Shafer
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Ad Hoc Theatre Company formed under the mission statement “to support Planned Parenthood by creating beautiful art about powerful women.” They lean into that mission with a vibrant, challenging take on Arthur Kopit’s 1965 absurdist comedy Chamber Music, directed by Jeb Bigelow.

Bigelow has assembled one of the strongest casts I’ve ever seen in a single play for this dark, madcap romp set in a late-’30s asylum. Women who believe they are Constanze Mozart (Kim Garrison Hopcraft), Osa Johnson (Susan Wismar), Gertrude Stein (Jennifer Feather Youngblood), Pearl White (Nikki Davis), Amelia Earhart (Acacia Duncan), Queen Isabella I (Kate Jones), Joan of Arc (Dakota Thorn), and Susan B. Anthony (Carolyn Demanielis), assemble for an annual meeting. A doctor/administrator – an exquisitely banal in his brutality Mark Mann – and his assistant (Tom Murdock) periodically check on the group to threaten and cajole.

The women in this asylum – not only the world for the characters but also the world writ large – struggle with one another. They hint at the impossibility of affecting real change on the environment but cling to the possibility given them because the only other choice is surrender. Bigelow and his cast dig deep into the torturous ways we use bureaucracy and self-regard to rob each other of our humanity. 

This production of Chamber Music finds – again and again – the acid, laugh-out-loud qualities in this horror but without diminishing the real human pain inside. The closest thing we have to a POV character, Duncan, is heartbreaking in her repeated insistence she’s the real Amelia Earhart and that steadfast clinging to belief helps condemn her in the eyes of her fellow inmates. Thorn’s vibrant, physical comedy as Joan of Arc gets huge laughs just putting her visor down, but also shifts to darker and more poignant territory when the only thing of hers – the cross – is broken.

Susan Wismar in an ad hoc theatre company’s production of Chamber Music – Photo by Jerri Shafer

The acting is stunning throughout. Each actor leaves an indelible impression: from Feather Youngblood’s stuttering Stein, to the intricate power struggle between Demanielis’ Anthony and Wismar’s Johnson. Garrison Hopcraft’s own acceptance of the situation – playing records, opening the window – is as infuriating to some of the other characters as the outside forces of the men’s wing and the constant imprisonment.

Bigelow’s direction understands the claustrophobia and world-gone-mad of the immediately-pre-WWII milieu Kopit addressed, the early-’60s world it was written in, and the parallels today, but he juggles it, bashing the audience over the head only when absolutely necessary. 

In a white-hot theatrical field with excellent choices at every turn, this rare classic of modernism stands proudly alongside the bigger, flashier productions. A thought-provoking play, exploding in the best way, to benefit a good cause.

Chamber Music runs through November 9 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. All proceeds benefit Planned Parenthood. For tickets and more info, visit http://madlab.net/tickets.html

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