House Theatre’s PLOUGHED UNDER Tills Up A Good Show

chi-ploughed-under-review-20130429-001REVIEWED BY: JOSEPH HILLENMETER

“Ploughed Under: An American Songbook,” is The House Theatre of Chicago’s most recent forte into “amazing feats of storytelling,” the mission of the company since it’s inception 12 years ago.

While “Ploughed Under” is a unique feat of storytelling for The House, it does in fact pay homage to some of the most original forms of storytelling: tall tales, folk stories and ballads.

More concert than play, the production is directed, composed and written by The House company member Kevin O’Donnell, who has provided scores for many of the company’s productions.

O’Donnell has created a show that is all about American stories; the stories of our country’s history that can instill feelings of pride and guilt, stories that are mostly true, mostly false or somewhere in between. As O’Donnell says, his goal with the production was to “… find a way to be proud without ignoring the horrible truths and contradictions of our history.”

The show consists of 19 songs and is divided into two acts. The numbers in the first act certainly don’t ignore the horrible truths, with songs about slavery, the snatching of land from Native Americans and Mexicans, unequal treatment of women, and The Civil War. I wouldn’t describe the second act as light-hearted, but many of the songs focus more on folk heros and legends, such as John Henry and Casey Jones.

The songs are all about America in one way or another and are performed in chronological order, in that the history becomes more recent as the show continues. However, covering such a large land with such a long history the 19 songs are a little short on continuity. When put together, the score doesn’t really feel like a flowing a history, but more a hodgepodge of selected stories from American history textbooks and folk songs. That is not so much a criticism as an observation, though, and I think at the heart of the production is the idea that this is a country shaped by many different people of many different backgrounds. Whether their names end up emblazoned on a monument in the nation’s capital, their legend is passed down over time through song, or their body was laid in the potter’s field, they’ve left a story worth tilling up and retelling.

The show consists of singing by the ensemble cast of six actor-musicians and outstanding musical performances by a four-piece band, including O’Donnell. The cast is comprised of a talented and experienced group: Abu Ansari, Genevieve VenJohnson, Alejandro Cordoba, Kevin Crowley, Carla Kessler and Christine Perkins. The band is Maria McCullough, Yahvi Pichardo and Matt Martin.

The set design is impressive and it’s sturdy and somewhat industrial feel make the perfect backdrop to a show about a country built on the backs of some very strong men and women.

The cast help slowly morph the stage through-out the show, too and take advantage of the large space provided by the Chopin Theatre, where The House is continuing its residency.

“Ploughed Under” runs through June 9 at Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division Street) on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. All Tickets are $25 and available at or by phone at (773) 769-3832.