By Henry Leung
This week, Roble Theater will host the premiere of “Abraham Niu & The Friendly Fires” Audiences will be stunned to learn that all of it was written and scored by one Stanford student, Karmia Chan Cao ’11.
I arrive a little early to find the cast sitting in a circle singing together, and I don’t mean just rehearsing: singing. It’s rare to find such unity in a group that’s only been together for a month. But it’s probably more rare to see a Stanford undergrad writing, scoring, directing, producing and performing in her own original musical.
From the woman who brought us “Forgetting Tiburon” last year, “Abraham Niu & The Friendly Fires” journeys through a family home in Canada to Afghanistan’s front lines to a luminal dream space for the dying and the remembering. Abraham (Peter Zou ’12), the beloved first son, sacrifices himself in the war. As he heads for the hereafter, his mother (Natalia Duong ’10) collapses into a coma, leaving the family in misery and panic. As their dreams and memories collide on stage, the story opens up to discharged love and grievance–and a digging at secrets, hauntings and heritage. Abraham Niu’s name is a pun that modernizes the old tale of Abraham: father of faith, through whom all generations were blessed.
The high caliber of writing is to be expected from Cao by now, but still, one doesn’t expect to find such integrity and professionalism in a student work. Since “Forgetting Tiburon,” Cao has moved away from spoken-word monologues and learned to trust the chemistry between her actors in dialogue. She paces humor with drama and poetry, and her gift for character brings us rounded, vivacious people who swear, hate, lie and sing; the younger brother (sweetly played by Albert Chu ’10) is the only character given short shrift. Old stage tricks are reinvented here, like a smug onstage narrator, an onstage side scene’s “volume” tuning down or likewise a standing radio (Helena Bonde ’11) turned off.
The performances are shy of perfect; but where the acting falters, the music offers backup, and vice versa. Unfamiliar hugs and awkward hand-holding are overshadowed by the pathos of the story–I can criticize, but I still got tremendous chills. Duong steals the show: her acting and smoky voice bring “Abraham Niu” all the way home. Amanda Gelender ’10 as Gator/Lego commands authority and outrageous humor with unforgettable stage presence. Zou is a shaky Abraham, but when the tension is taut, he pulls it off; his execution of the play’s final lines is superb. James Xie ’10 as the father also delivers his best game when he lets loose. Atha Fong ’10 brings her own spunk as the youngest daughter with heartbreaking performance and tender song. Singing talents Shira Stites ’10 and Ariel Mazel-Gee ’12 raise the bar; Hari Rai Khalsa and Brady Fukumoto on taiko drums add a unique dimension to the scenes.
I only saw a rough cut of the music, but I’m enchanted. I haven’t heard musical styles blended for a score like this since Greg Edmonson’s work on “Firefly.” It’s an all-live ensemble of mostly folk, pop and rock, but includes throat singing from Mongolian tradition and, if you listen closely, undertones of Chinese influences twanging through Western sounds; even a Native American flute emerges. The innovation of one scene is worth noting, in which there is miscommunication between Sophie and her mother, first by talking over one another, then by overlapping songs with monosyllabic sounds instead of words. Background instrumentals during scenes are cinematic and well timed without excess–silence is implemented well for the sake of story.
“Abraham Niu” is balanced entirely. You can go for the music, for the writing or for the acting, but you’ll be beguiled by its whole constellation of virtues. All parts of this production count, flawed but inextricable and full of heart. If you’ve seen the show flyers with the Banksy stencil (“Rioter With Flowers”) on it, you won’t be misled. This show is art for a change: it’s subaltern, it’s international, it speaks loudly for multiple languages. This is a workshop production, which means actors will be holding scripts, the set will be incomplete, and following the show will be discussion and audience input. It’s a rare privilege to participate in a piece like this.
Find the show at the Roble Dorm Theater this Thursday and Friday night at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 5 p.m. Come an hour earlier too for “Wealth of Words,” directed by Heather Buckelew ’10. If “Abraham Niu” is any measure of STAMP’s standards of quality, both shows will be remembered as an end-of-the-year hit. “After winds have spun to nothing / After stars have played their last / When all mothers call their children / And their children skip on back…”