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Pawn (Fringe Festival 2011)

by Stephen Tortora-Lee on August 28, 2011

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When is a tragedy not a tragedy? When we realize the Only Way Is Forward and healing takes place on a lot of levels.

In the folk-rock musical Pawn, by Karmia Chan Cao (playwright, director, and composer) we see a Canadian family split apart twice in 10 years, first by the oldest son being taken from them in the crumbling of the Twin Towers on September 11th and later on when the younger son volunteers to go overseas for three years to Afghanistan.   The eldest son, Kai, is now just a picture on the top of a shelf in the family’s convenience store (the picture is of Eric Tran who plays piano with the rest of the band).

Now their other son, Abraham Niu (Alex Kaneko) will be finishing his second and final tour of duty in Afghanistan in 5 days and the story of this play circles around the end of his journey home and how he he finds resolution from his brother’s death by making a the most important choice of his life. It is a lush play with many different layers: cultural, spiritual, and that of personal redemption … of many types. It has truly been finely crafted and I hope this play get to “make it big” and spread its message:  to accept the moment we are in and use it to make the future brighter to a larger audience sooner rather than later.

We begin with this family singing forlornly;  they miss their sons terribly. The family is made up of  the mother (Ma played by Sarah Guerrero), the father (Ba played by Julian Kusnadi), and the daughter (Shea played by Alicia Triana).

At the same time, back in Afghanistan, Abraham’s unit finds out that they will have to guard the perimeter of a village they have been working to establish friendly relationships with for several months.  They’ll have to guard to make sure that no one gets out of the village.  They feel like they will be betraying both the villagers as well as themselves, but those are their orders.

[AK featuring Gator (played by Sam Julian) and the ensemble (played by Karen Young, Anna Gu, Christian Ollano, Katherine Neubauer, Mark Hammer Johnson, Rachel Purcell, and Troy Yang) in the Fringe cast]

Abraham has misses his home and this causes him to have a change of heart and he begins trying to warn some of the villagers of the coming danger after comparing the desert with his snowy native land of Alberta, and wishing he could make himself pure again after his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. He finds some children in the targeted area which is to be bombed and tries to get them to call off the run, but he can’t get Gator to stop the run before the first barrage.  He is order to get out of the impact zone before the plane comes back for it’s second pass.  Abraham rushes back in to get the children out and a dying mother presses her baby in his arms.

At the same time his mother, sensing her child is threatened, reaches out with her spirit to protect him however she could. She chants a song of protection as the bombs are zooming in on their targets.

The lights go down and then Abraham finds himself in the Pawn Shop of Time confronted by a stranger.

Once in the Pawn Shop of Time he is approached by someone who introduces himself as Lego (played by Graham Roth), who in part looks like his army buddy Gator but in part reminds him of a childhood toy.  He finds himself surrounded by bits and pieces of memories from his life.  Lego is some cross between Puck and a guardian angel or some personal incarnation of intuition slowed down enormously.

Lego reads from a book, apparently Abraham’s Book of Life which seems to be set the form of a poetic play dialogue with Lego as   narrator.  It explains that Abraham is in the Pawn Shop of Time, where time has been stretched.  What will only be the last few seconds before the bomb above him drops will feel as if it takes up the length of a night.  In that time Abraham will have to make the most important decision of his life: will he run away from the blast site thus saving himself  but dooming the native children to death?

It seems that the metaphor of  Pawn Shop works to bring across the idea that it a place where we have all the forgotten things in our lives, as well as a place to evaluate and decide what can be traded for what.  It also underscores that this is the time for him to no longer be just a pawn, but to finally take control of himself and truly make a decision. But before he makes this most difficult decision, he must look back at his life and see what brought him here.


At the end everyone sees that – as the title says – the “Only Way is Forward”. We see Abraham’s vision of the future and funeral inspirations and how his family finds closure.

In this great musical by Karmia Chan Cao we see a triumphant journey from pain to redemption as a family steps out from under the shadow casts by prejudice in their home in Alberta.  Since the final show was cancelled due to the oncoming Hurricane Irene, instead of a regular review I made a more of a compilation in order to tell a lot of the story, so more people could get a chance to see this. These clips are from an earlier version of the show, with a more basic production.  The Fringe production was very smooth with great sound (sound design by Jason Fang and assisted by Tamarind King) and music (played by this talented group of musicians: Eric Tran playing piano; Nathan Heng-chi Cheung, playing Liuqin, Melodica, and Glockenspiel;  Sterling Camden playing electrical guitar;  Stephen Quiñónez on acoustic guitar, and Karmia Cao on drums) as well as lively dance (choreographed by Alisha Mitchell) beautiful costumes (by Leanna Keyes) and a set that pulls together the many different locations of this play (the convenience store, Afghanistan, Chinatown, New York and The Pawn Shop of Time) in a very balanced and meaningful way (set design by Michael Cohen).

This play has had a lot of world wide critical acclaim, and a very heartfelt and meaningful storyline and I hope it gets the chance to be in the Fringe Encore  Series so we all get another chance to see it again.

Pawn ran until August 26, 2011 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Leanna KeyesNo Gravatar August 29, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Thank you for the beautiful write-up. Working on the show has been an incredibly privilege and honor.

Minor correction: the costumes are designed by Leanna Keyes, not Leanna Kayes. :)

Karen Tortora-LeeNo Gravatar August 29, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Not minor at all :) We’ve made the correction – thanks so much for bringing it to our attention. And again, wonderful job!

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