Produced by The House Theatre of Chicago
Playing at the Chopin Theatre
Ploughed Under feels preachy and preening with little trade-off.
Ploughed Under: An American Songbook—put on by The House Theatre of Chicago—is a medley revue of wide-eyed Americana featuring songs by composer, director and lead drummer Kevin O’Donnell. Focusing on a cross-section of American history, beginning before the arrival of the first Europeans and going up until the early 20th-century, each song is either a character study of some historical persona (e.g. Virginia Dare, Joaquin Murrieta, and Casey Jones) or a generalized account of some past event—the Boston Tea Party, the Civil War, and the Lakota-American War. And though lurking beneath all of it is some facile point about the need for compassionate pluralism, Ploughed Under feels at time to be little more than exercise in style.
Though on the surface an attempt to resurrect figures lost to our historical memory, barely protruding from just beneath the surface is a kind of artlessly self-conscious, reachingly hip, and morally patronizing piece. Evoking the setup of an indie music concert—largely by stuffing the front tables with eager twenty-somethings sipping Sam Adams and caking the stage in high-octane venue lighting —we can perhaps sympathize with Ploughed Under’s hopes of bringing a kind of chic authenticity to musical theater, even if it doesn’t quite succeed.
Musically speaking, there’s little to write home about. There’s some novel innovations being made with timbre—largely experimentations in the percussive potential of chains, animal skulls, copper pennies and such. But the songs become often so staccato and rhythm-heavy that they land lifeless and atonal to the ear. And vocal performances vary widely among this frantically up-beat entourage of singers, though not even Renée Fleming could salvage the frequently awkward phrasings of lines such as these: “When you scout for your tribe, wife and family/ You need to climb, despite the fear, and that/ is what they did.”
There are elements of bluegrass and folk music here, but in general, they’re too lacking in texture or soulful depths to stick with you. And that’s a shame, because the band-musical form that Ploughed Under borrows—blurring the line between revue, book musical and concert event— has interesting potential. The whole thing reminded me, for instance, of Futurity, a stage production written by the Brooklyn indie band The Lisps, performed recently at Joe’s Pub in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Watching the trailer for it (below), one perhaps gets a better sense of what Ploughed Under could have been had it not decided to play it so insufferably safe.
And O’Donnells lyrics are strangely literal, almost deliberately avoiding anything expressively revealing. The results feel like old episodes of Schoolhouse Rock!: “So a hundred English subjects/ Stormed out of the Old South Meeting House/ Thousands more had met that night/ December Seventeen Seventy Five.” Observe the unflaggingly linear direction, neither dramatic nor poetic, but instead clumsily prosaic. Attempts to flesh out the various stories with historic details falls flat, because it’s the wrong kind of details being invoked.
In the above song, written about the original Boston Tea Party, nobody really cares to hear about the Stamp Act or about Lord North or about Griffin’s Warf. But we do want to know how the tea smelled as it dissolved into the ocean. We want to know how cold the Boston air felt in the middle of December. And we want to know how the wood of the harbor creaked beneath the feet of the mob. There’s an old maxim in storytelling: show, don’t tell. But O’Donnell’s problem is that he’d rather “tell,” cuz at the end of the day there’s a rigid self-assurance in the show’s underlying moral polemic that couldn’t sustain the potential ironies of actual storytelling.
I mean, nobody’s going to fault O’Donnell for denouncing America’s admittedly conflicted and violent past—but these days it’s about as morally provocative as opposing drug pedaling to children or statutory rape. You’ll note that copies of the show’s lyrics are conveniently (and conspicuously) provided during the show. Trust me, it’s for the best, given that the audience isn’t so much being sung to as lectured at. When it works, Ploughed Under manages to scrape by with subtle invocations of, say, Irving Berling’s patriotic Americana. But on the whole it just lands premature.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Sunday, April 28th, 2013.
Ploughed Under: An American Songbook runs until June 9th, 2013. The Chopin Theatre is located at 1543 W. Division St. For tickets call (773) 769-3832 or visit www.thehousetheatre.com. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/ploughed-under-an-american-songbook/6293/.