Theater Review: Chamber Music

An insane asylum with eight iconic women? <em>Chamber Music</em> certainly has its quirks.

If you could sit on a committee with any eight historical figures, who would they be? Admittedly, this isn’t how the question is usually posed. It’s usually dinner, and most of the time five is the maximum selections one gets. But dinner can stultify conversation if everyone’s impatiently hungry, and with less than six choices you’ve really got to play it safe. Socrates, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and a wild card (say, Churchill or Darwin, Austen or da Vinci) and you’re already stuffed elbow-to-elbow with erudition.

Except Einstein is spending a quarter of the time cramming his face with breadsticks and Socrates is wandering around the restaurant pestering toddlers with geometry questions. No, what you need in order to best pad your opportunity is a conversation with a point and enough picks to have to make some tough choices. This is exactly what playwright Arthur Kopit does in his theatrical production Chamber Music, currently playing at Butler University and being directed by one of the university’s theater professors, William Fisher. The committee consists entirely of iconic women (Susan B. Anthony, Gertrude Stein, Amelia Earhart, Joan of Arc, Queen Isabella of Spain, etc.), and their group task is to decide whether they would be justified in preemptively attacking the men’s ward.

You see, the members of the iconic ensemble aren’t actually the historical figures, but rather are patients in the women’s division of a psychiatric hospital with delusions of grand significance—or at least that’s the impression one is given. Whether they are who they claim, are each different patients who just happen to have the same vicarious-personality disorder, or are all mental manifestations arguing it out in one person’s head is left intentionally ambiguous. There are at least equal number of moments that suggest the latter two, while the former is likely kept around to illustrate to the audience the porous border between insanity and idiosyncrasy.

The plot ends in a murder, meant to show the men’s side that the women’s side is serious about defending themselves. What it’s meant to show the audience, however, is beyond this reviewer. After one of the committee members is whacked, the remaining survivors start behaving a lot more like their institutional circumstances suggest they would. Gertrude Stein tears up the pages of her notebook and starts sprinkling the pieces onto the dead body. Pearl White steals the victim’s scarf and parades around the room talking about how soft it is. Constanze Mozart opens the window (is there really a window, though?) and begins talking to her imagined husband, looking up to the sky as if she were praying to God.

Chamber Music has been labeled an “absurdist play”—meaning it’s a play that doesn’t obey its own internal logic (according to industry standards, this style of narration is somehow meant to suggest the futility of objective reality and human existence)—but, at least in this rendition, comes across as merely ridiculous. Whether a serious play with too much quirkiness, or a quirky play with too much seriousness, it never finds the proper balance.

For every part of Chamber Music that makes you laugh from embarrassment or gasp from exasperation, there are parts that make you question if you’re the artistic enemy of the playwright. The cast is enjoyable, handling the play’s back-and-forth waddling between hysteria and solemnity with dramatic ease.