by: Rudy Gerson
An ambitious docudrama: Chang(e) wavers between abstraction and narrative
The team of Soomi Kim and Suzi Takahashi spent years researching, developing, and workshopping an ambitious docudrama about Kathy Chang, an outspoken performer and activist who spent years in protest, calling for global revolution on and around the campus of UPenn.
Chang(e) is led by Soomi Kim as Kathy, who lived and performed around UPenn from 1981 until her final day in October 1996, choosing to end her life in a public act of self-immolation.
Kathy’s life story is not explored in detail. Rather, the piece uses her commitment to love and a life of outward emotional expression as a launching pad for interpretative sound and movement. Less of a biopic, Chang(e) explores mental health and alienation from society, without crafting a linear narrative.
The play utilized recognizable Brechtian techniques for telling the story. Cardboard placards to communicate setting were updated with high-tech projections. Costumes (by Machine Dazzle) were visual striking and a highlight of the show.
The play is most compelling during scenes of ensemble movement, which together with the full-cast choreography outshines the shallow plot of Kathy Chang and her boyfriend. Relatonships rest on cliché and recognizable tropes. By the third protest scene, Kathy feels repetitive and cranky. This reviewer could easily imagine how students of UPenn may have found her protests passionate yet annoyingly directionless.
The text itself is as frustratingly vague as Kathy’s calls for global social transformation. Characters do not develop meaningful relationships, and most of the dialogue comes across without nuance. Where the text of Chang(e) fails as dramatic narrative, the piece succeeds in evocative ensemble work.
Choreography by Alexandra Beller was provocative, playful, and sharp. Kevan Loney designed video that interacted beautifully with the day-glo disco set design of Bryce Cutler.
One of the actors of the ensemble — Zeke Stewart — gives a standout performance, adding much-needed comic relief from a play that takes itself very seriously. I laud Chang(e) for its blending of forms and risk-taking, yet the criticism of generality directed at Kathy’s call for revolution are similarly felt here.
HERE Arts Center, Nov. 5 – 22
Photo: Benjamin Heller