Ploughed Under: An American Songbook House Theatre of Chicago

April 19th - June 9th.  Ploughed Under, a concert of folk tales created and composed by Kevin O'Donnell.

Tix: $25

More information/box office 773.769.3832

04/19/13 - 06/09/13

Thu-Sat 8p; Sun 7p

"Ploughed Under: An American Songbook"  - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 4/29/13. - The Chopin Theatre is set up with long tables and chairs for “Ploughed Under: An American Songbook,” a gutsy project at the House Theatre of Chicago that, demonstably, is very much the brainchild of Kevin O’Donnell, the composer and percussionist whose music has been the basis for many of the past shows at a company that devices almost all its own work. On each table sits a bound book of lyrics for the 17 numbers that make up this sh ow. You will need them. It is very difficult to otherwise hear, understand and feel the lyrics.

 Part of the problem here is that the 10 actor-singer-musicians standing on Collette Pollard’s resonantly designed stage (think Civil War rustic) are wearing head microphones that feed into a sound system — adequate, perhaps, for a traditional book musical but not for what’s basically a theatricalized concert, a songsuite of O’Donnell compositions that honor a variety of unsung American heroes from a while ago: the likes of Molly Pitcher (a legendary figure said to have fought in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778), Joaquin Murrieta (a figure of the California Gold Rush) and Virginia Dare (born in 1587, the first American child of English parents).

Since the whole conceit here is to draw attention to the overlooked heroes of American history (although it might be a stretch to call Casey Jones overlooked), and since the spoken text is minimal, that means that O’Donnell has to pack his lyrics with narrative information: lines like “Joaquin Murrieta is the name of a man / Raised in Mexico, but still Ame-ri-can.” In most of these songs, performed as a mix of solos, small group numbers and rousing company singalongs, there is so much biographical information that it starts to come at the expense of the feeling of the characters. And in these circumstances — a big crew of singer-musicians (better musicians than singers, on balance) falling somewhere between singing these songs concert-style and acting them out — it becomes difficult to tell where O’Donnell is going, beyond a very honorable history lesson about the contributions of remarkable, overlooked Americans.

 I’ve long had enormous respect for O’Donnell’s music, which has one foot in experimental composition and another in the Americana and parlor music tradition of the 19th century, ascendedent here. He also is a remarkable percussionist. But this is a heavy assignment (O’Donnell directed the show, composed the score and leads the band), and he could have used an outside eye that might have found more light and shade to cut the pervasive tone of period earnestness. That tone tends to wash over a laudably ambitious piece that now needs more contrast, clarity and heart”.


 New Song Cycle "Ploughed Under" Digs into American History – Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times 5/1/13.  “Consider this as a thumbnail description of the trajectory of American history: We went as far as possible from East to West; we waged a brutal fight between North and South; and then, having no place else to go, we took the vertical route, building skyscrapers that pierced the clouds.


That (and I've taken a few liberties) is the map laid out in "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook," the ambitious world premiere song cycle created for The House Theatre of Chicago by Kevin O'Donnell, the composer, drummer, lyricist (and now director) who has created the scores for more than 20 House shows and a slew of other theater companies.


Given the title, it should come as no surprise that O'Donnell -- whose work is being performed by six conviction-filled singers (Kevin Barry Crowley, Alejandro Cordoba, Abu Ansari, Christine Mayland Perkins, Carla Kessler and Genevieve VenJohnson), and a first-class band (Matt Martin, Yahvi Pichardo, Maria McCullough and the composer) -- has homed in on the darker and sometimes forgotten or buried aspects of our nation's past.

  Along the way he has devised portraits-in-song of those who have variously been considered heroes or anti-heroes. He also has brought a fresh twist to seminal events -- from Native American involvement with everything from the earliest settlers to the building of those skyscrapers, to the Civil War, the laying of the transcontinental railroad tracks, the advent of the California gold rush and more.

 The cycle gains steam as it goes, with those of the 18 songs that receive the the clearest spoken introductions tending to fare best. (Looseleafs filled with the song lyrics are available for audience use.)

"The Ballad of Virginia Dare" offers an intriguing take on the survival of the Roanoke colony's firt born child in 1586. "Tooth and Nail" takes the form of a rousing sea shanty that suggests how perlilous a fisherman's life can be. The role of the Mohawk Indians in the revolutionary Boston Harbor Tea Party of 1775 is chronicled with great zest in "No Cross No Crown." And O'Donnell has put a solid Latin beat behind "The Robin Hood of El Dorado."

 We hear from both the Union and Confederate sides about the profound sadness of war in "Babylon's Falling" and "The Army of the Dead." And we also get a hymn to John Brown, the abolitionist who O'Donnell dubs "freedom's terrorist."

There are songs for such folk heroes as John Henry, the steel-driver who died trying to save his job by pitting himself against a steam-powered hammer, and Casey Jones, the railroad engineer who saved a child. And there is even a bluesy song for a lovesick woman in New Orleans waiting for a letter from a man up North -- mail that will never arrive.

O'Donnell's songs are smart, varied and wonderfully orchestrated (with everything from fiddles, guitars and percussion to spoons). One periodically irking habit, however, is the way he distorts the natural pronunciation of words to fit his rhythms.


Collette Pollard, that inspired architect of theater space, has transformed the Chopin Theatre into a mix of standard seats and cabaret tables, with the stage extended into the audience with five long wooden tables that double as runway stages. Her clever backdrop for the show (expertly lit by Lee Keenan) is a suggestion of the American flag, constructed of wooden planks.

 No doubt about it, "Ploughed Under" turns up plenty of blood-and-sweat-stained soil”


Ploughed Under: An American Songbook – Justin Hayford, Chicago Reader 5/1/13.  “Kevin O'Donnell's folk-ballad song cycle spans 600 years of American history, but musically it hardly budges an inch. Whether telling the story of star-crossed 15th-century Cree lovers, unheralded female soldiers of the American Revolution, or folk icons like John Henry and Casey Jones, O'Donnell funnels somber melodies through numbingly similar tempos; after 20 minutes of this nearly two-hour premiere for House Theatre, you've heard most everything you're going to hear, twice. Six vocalists sing mostly in full-voiced unison, letting enthusiasm stand in for musicianship, and the four-piece band's arrangements are largely built around indistinct strumming. Most problematically, O'Donnell's lyrics reduce the ethical muck of Americana to easy moral lessons; listeners always know exactly where their sympathies should lie. —Justin Hayford


 A new song cycle about American folk heroes falls short in its storytelling – Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago 5/6/13.  “In this new song cycle, composer Kevin O'Donnell looks at seminal episodes and unsung heroes in the development of America, spanning 1491 to 1902. O'Donnell leads a four-piece band backing six performers who also play instruments, covering subjects from Virginia Dare to the Boston Tea Party, John Brown to Casey Jones.


Scenic designer Collette Pollard sets the stage against a backdrop of crisscrossing wood planks that suggest the American flag, with five platforms extending out into the house serving as both runways for the performers and communal tables for the audience. Other audience members are seated at cabaret-style tables; an in-theater bar remains open throughout the show.

 O'Donnell, who in addition to his work in theater has gigged and recorded with musicians like Andrew Bird and Kelly Hogan, brings to his songs a lush instrumentation and heavy use of choral singing, with no discernible attempt at period pastiche; they live almost entirely in major keys.

 His lyrics, though, are often lackluster. At times they seem averse to metaphor, as in a song about the Native American Squanto, which begins all too straightforwardly: "This is the story of a man / A Pawtuxet American / His name was Tisquantum / He knew no fear and he trusted everyone." Others cut off abruptly just when the story gets interesting. A ballad about the California Gold Rush figure Joaquin Murrieta, "The Robin Hood of El Dorado," spends 21 verses on Murrieta's backstory and the control of the California territory before announcing in the 22nd that Murrieta became a vigilante. Oh, really? But the song's over.

 The collection suggests what might be left on the cutting-room floor if Sufjan Stevens actually completed his Fifty States Project, or a Decemberists show with a less adventurous vocabulary. Only occasionally does the evening hit the right combination of rousing storytelling and musical drive, as in the John Brown tale "For and Against," which closes Act I. O'Donnell, in his first outing at a piece's helm, has admirable ambition and musical chops. But the concept needs a bit more tending.

 House Theatre’s PLOUGHED UNDER Tills Up A Good Show – Michael J Roberts,  ““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 BY GOOD INTENTIONS AND BAD SONGWRITING SONGBOOK  - Tony Frankelon,  – “What a great idea: Create modern folk songs to represent Americans whose voices have been given short shrift (or ploughed under) by history. There are boundless unsung heroes who can attain mythical stature through inspirational ditties. Given Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.the little we know factually about the subjects, there is room for embellishment, which is often the key to mythologizing. Examples are Deborah Sampson, an American woman who went incognito as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolution; Virginia Dare, the first child born in the Americas to English parents (and also a member of Roanoke’s “Lost Colony”); and Tisquantum (a.k.a. Squanto), a Native American of the Patuxet tribe who was almost sold into slavery in Spain, but returned to teach the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims how to plant maize.


Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.  However, in producing a barely staged concert of brand new songs such as these, The House Theatre of Chicago forgot one teensy-weensy thing: someone who can write songs. With music and lyrics by Kevin O’Donnell (who also conceived the show), Ploughed Under: An American Songbook contains 19 jaw-dropping numbers that should be preserved for, if nothing else, budding songwriters to learn exactly what not to do when composing: Lyrics are crammed into melodic lines which they don’t fit; syllables are incorrectly stressed musically (“Back before the urban din / Or the smoke of the steam engine”); there are no hooks; at least 7 numbers (I lost count) have “Oh, oh, ohs” and “Ah-ah-ahs” as lyrics; attempts at imagery and poetry often lead to confusion; some stanzas have a rhyme scheme but others in the same song do not; and, worst of all, the songs are pocked with imperfect rhymes (it is simply jarring to the ear when we hear “passed” rhyming with “kidnapped,” “noise” with “Illinois,” and even “south” with “mouths.”


Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.Finally, the same pattern – starting with a riff and ending abruptly – occurs song after song after song after song; what is most strange about this is that O’Donnell’s peculiar tunes do not employ complicated chord structure, yet they are forgettable even as we listen to them (I honestly can’t even call these songs “pastiche”). Before the late 1900s, commonplace American workers were usually unschooled (during the Revolution, the majority were also illiterate); hence, they acquired songs and passed them along because they were easy to memorize. There is historical chronology to the tunes in Ploughed Under, but it is the baffling content which makes me wonder what the job of a dramaturg is supposed to be, as this production has not one but two – Chad Kenward and Dixie Belinda Uffelman (who has a US History degree).

 Also, the show’s attempt to reinterpret history through song fails utterly because the topics are slanted toward political correctness and smack of righteous self-importance. Mr. O’Donnell, who also directs his over-earnest performers, plays the drums, does some neat experimenting with rhythm and harmonics (“A Bell is Not a Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of "Ploughed Under: An American Songbook" House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin.Cup”), has fun with authentic-sounding orchestrations (utilizing chains, rocks and jawbones), and has magically transformed the theater into a giant pub-like concert hall; but he fails to tell stories because his songs lack specificity and relatable, inspiring characters; O’Donnell’s unsophisticated, humorless, slanted songs are mostly more concerned with the victimization of those he feels have earned a place in history. I like the idea of anthropomorphizing the Transcontinental Railroad, but I kept waiting for that one plaintive ballad from a personal viewpoint in the style of “The Only Home I Know” from Shenandoah and “Mama, Look Sharp” from 1776; both of these have a simple melody and are sung by characters we do not know, yet we are touched by the characters’ realism and universality: They portray those who engage in conflict in order to keep a place called home, and that is what captures our heart and imagination”.



 Ploughed Under feels preachy and preening with little trade-off – Tom Williams, www.ChicagoCritic.comPloughed Under: An American Songbook—put on by The House Theatre of Chicago—is a medley revue of wide-eyed Americana featuring songs by composer, director and lead drummer Kevin O’Donnell. Focusing on a cross-section of American history, beginning before the arrival of the first Europeans and going up until the early 20th-century, each song is either a character study of some historical persona (e.g. Virginia Dare, Joaquin Murrieta, and Casey Jones) or a generalized account of some past event—the Boston Tea Party, the Civil War, and the Lakota-American War. And though lurking beneath all of it is some facile point about the need for compassionate pluralism, Ploughed Under feels at time to be little more than exercise in style.


Though on the surface an attempt to resurrect figures lost to our historical memory, barely protruding from just beneath the surface is a kind of artlessly self-conscious, reachingly hip, and morally patronizing piece. Evoking the setup of an indie music concert—largely by stuffing the front tables with eager twenty-somethings sipping Sam Adams and caking the stage in high-octane venue lighting —we can perhaps sympathize with Ploughed Under’s hopes of bringing a kind of chic authenticity to musical theater, even if it doesn’t quite succeed.


Ploughed Under5 House Theatre full cast by Brosilow 400x266 Ploughed Under: An American SongbookMusically speaking, there’s little to write home about. There’s some novel innovations being made with timbre—largely experimentations in the percussive potential of chains, animal skulls, copper pennies and such. But the songs become often so staccato and rhythm-heavy that they land lifeless and atonal to the ear. And vocal performances vary widely among this frantically up-beat entourage of singers, though not even Renée Fleming could salvage the frequently awkward phrasings of lines such as these: “When you scout for your tribe, wife and family/ You need to climb, despite the fear, and that/ is what they did.”


There are elements of bluegrass and folk music here, but in general, they’re too lacking in texture or soulful depths to stick with you. And that’s a shame, because the band-musical form that Ploughed Under borrows—blurring the line between revue, book musical and concert event— has interesting potential. The whole thing reminded me, for instance, of Futurity, a stage production written by the Brooklyn indie band The Lisps, performed recently at Joe’s Pub in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Watching the trailer for it (below), one perhaps gets a better sense of what Ploughed Under could have been had it not decided to play it so insufferably safe.


And O’Donnells lyrics are strangely literal, almost deliberately avoiding anything expressively revealing. The results feel like old episodes of Schoolhouse Rock!: “So a hundred English subjects/ Stormed out of the Old South Meeting House/ Thousands more had met that night/ December Seventeen Seventy Five.” Observe the unflaggingly linear direction, neither dramatic nor poetic, but instead clumsily prosaic. Attempts to flesh out the various stories with historic details falls flat, because it’s the wrong kind of details being invoked.


In the above song, written about the original Boston Tea Party, nobody really cares to hear about the Stamp Act or about Lord Ploughed Under9 House Theatre Pechardo and Kessler by Brosilow 267x400 Ploughed Under: An American SongbookNorth or about Griffin’s Warf. But we do want to know how the tea smelled as it dissolved into the ocean. We want to know how cold the Boston air felt in the middle of December. And we want to know how the wood of the harbor creaked beneath the feet of the mob. There’s an old maxim in storytelling: show, don’t tell. But O’Donnell’s problem is that he’d rather “tell,” cuz at the end of the day there’s a rigid self-assurance in the show’s underlying moral polemic that couldn’t sustain the potential ironies of actual storytelling.


I mean, nobody’s going to fault O’Donnell for denouncing America’s admittedly conflicted and violent past—but these days it’s about as morally provocative as opposing drug pedaling to children or statutory rape. You’ll note that copies of the show’s lyrics are conveniently (and conspicuously) provided during the show. Trust me, it’s for the best, given that the audience isn’t so much being sung to as lectured at. When it works, Ploughed Under manages to scrape by with subtle invocations of, say, Irving Berling’s patriotic Americana. But on the whole it just lands premature”.


Kevin O’Donnell’s enveloping, rich musical scores for The House have propelled the Sparrow to flight, Valentine to victory, and Houdini to battle Death. His original compositions now come front-and-center as The House weaves American folk stories and tall tales into a rich tapestry of all-original music. This theatrical concert is carefully focused on vocal and rhythmic dynamics, echoing the clarity and power of African and Native American folk music. Each song is a story into itself, some familiar, some forgotten, connecting to our musical roots to the churning of our early history.

Written and Composed by Kevin O'Donnell

Abu Ansari, Alejandro Cordoba, Kevin Crowley, Carla Kessler, Christine Perkins, Genevieve Ven Johnson

Kevin O’Donnell (composer, director), Collette Pollard (set design), Lee Keenan (lighting), Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes), Michael Griggs, Joshua Horvath (sound design), Chad Kenward, Dixie Uffelman (dramaturg), Sarah Hoeferlin (stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Tags: Theater, American, 2013