“We tell each other stories to live,” wrote Joan Didion. Daniel K. Isaac Once upon a time (Korean), the new production from Ma-Yi Theater Company, takes this literally. The characters of Isaac, played by seven Asian American actors, populate five vignettes, operating simultaneously in five historical moments and the timeless tales they tell of horrific experiences surviving and, at times, transcending them.
Isaac himself has, thus far, been primarily an actor, currently playing Ben Kim in the TV series Billions. Under the direction of Ma-Yi’s Ralph B. Peña, the versatile cast bring their first script to life and the production’s brilliant designers solve complex problems as the performers move through time among species such as birds, fish, a tiger and a bear, and across the world (not to mention heaven and hell), transforming La Mama’s scene from sleazy environments into magical ones.
Act 1, “Earth,” begins on a battlefield during the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1930. As two terrified soldiers (played by Jon Norman Schneider and David Lee Huynh) cower under fire, the one asks the other for a story to keep from losing his mind. The tale comes to life, manifesting two characters: a beautiful (and pregnant) woman who is both a mythical figure and the wife of wounded Huynh, and a “model wife” whose photo Schneider carries in his bag for “the right to boast”. and keep his friends away from the smell of his homosexuality. “This soldier cut out my picture,” the model says, “and pasted it with scraps of rice on cardboard, carried me around so he had something to say, so he could hide something on himself.”
The seven actors embody nearly 40 characters, including, somehow, themselves.
Huynh’s character dies and transforms, and we suddenly find ourselves in Act 2, “Water,” in the antechamber of a “comfort station” in 1940s Korea, where three unsuspecting young women ( Sasha Diamond, Teresa Avia Lim and Jillian Sun) were commissioned by the Japanese occupiers to serve as sex slaves for soldiers. They wash up between meetings complaining and daydreaming.
In the third act, “Heaven,” a story these “comfort women” share in their living room comes to life with Schneider magically transformed into a sea dragon (read: drag queen), heralded by thousands of bubbles descending into the public. One of the women, still a virgin despite her situation, is transformed into a character in this tale: her blind father (David Shih) has lost his wife in childbirth and their daughter swears to support him; when she does not return home one night, he searches for her, falls overboard, and negotiates her rescue with a monk. These characters are both traditional – steeped in the values (such as filial piety) of their Asian culture – and dazzling with modernity, teenage slang (“basic”, “extra”), sexual frankness, posture and 21st century styling. Los Angeles and New York.
The crises of one generation are visited in the next. The occupying soldiers have a way of producing single mothers with children who sometimes have to be abandoned. Stressed-out mother Cheong, played by Sonnie Brown, whispers, “A tainted traitor to the homeland with living proof of mixed worlds…. I can’t do this alone. Whereupon a flock of magpies and crows (the work of projection designers Yee Eun Nam and Elizabeth Barrett) grab her baby and carry her away, presumably to be adopted by Americans.
In Act 4, “Fire,” set in 1992 Los Angeles, a young woman who has been adopted by a white family in Orange County arrives at the liquor store run by her biological mother just as Violence descended on Korean businesses as civil unrest in LA begins to boil. They huddle amid shattered glass and encroaching flames and tell each other stories until they are magically rescued.
The final act, bigger and brighter than the others and set in a very contemporary New York restaurant, brings the seven characters together in something like the present for a meeting of the “Adopted Korean Americans Support Group”, around of a Korean barbecue. It turns out that four of them identify as gay; the male couple bring their new baby to dinner, while the lesbians have left their twins at home. Families are formed and broken. One of their mothers – who is sure her gay child will burn in hell – shows up.
And so, five generations of Koreans pass through the five acts, growing from swaddled infants to adults who are either “awakened” or fixed in traditional attitudes. The young Korean Americans celebrating in the restaurant are joyfully liberated and yet aware of the debt they owe their elders. One says to the others: “You should try one day with your first parents: the Trojan horse will tell them the truth through these fables and popular tales.
At 95 minutes with no intermission, the play is a little too long and hard to follow at times, but the script’s fine visual design and earthy directness, the sheer effort to create magic out of misery, are very winning. The acting is terrific throughout. A huge team of designers, including Se Hyun Oh, Phuong Nguyen, Oliver Wason and Fabian Obispo, are responsible for the structure of the movable diptych that centers the simple set (its few boxes replace all kinds of furniture), as well as the costumes , lighting and sound. The ensemble built this tour de force of a spectacle, creating the illusions that transform ancient combat helmets into gourds producing both wealth and decadence, that transform comfort women into princesses and brutal soldiers into gay parents. plugged in. The seven actors embody nearly 40 characters, including, somehow, themselves, during the final dinner. There they finish, for us and for themselves, some of the tales left hanging in the previous sections. Sonnie Brown, playing the mother figure to an older generation, offers the blessing: “That’s how you became.
Korean culture is definitely having a here-and-now moment, and Isaac’s piece goes a long way to prolonging that moment. Better not bring the kids, but don’t miss its many laughs and mysterious transformations. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater and books for the Voice of the village and other publications since 1983. She leads writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and taught in Hollins University’s MFA dance program.
ONCE UPON A TIME (Korean)
Ellen Stewart Theater
The mom ETC
66 East 4th Street
Until September 18
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