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22 Feb 2013

Review: There (a play) – So I’m back now in Korea after a two-week holiday in Cambodia, where we saw the temples of Angkor and spent a few days on a beach on the south coast, among other things. I expect I will have more to say about this later, but for the time being I want to talk about a play that my wife and I saw in a tiny theater in Daehangno. We had not originally intended to, but my wife was offered two free tickets to one of a select number of plays sponsored by Interpark (a Korean shopping site), and we decided to go. (Actually, what happened is that she was given the option to get two free tickets for a certain number of “blue heart” points she had accumulated, but she couldn’t figure out how to turn down the offer and accidentally accepted it—call it serendipity via poor website design.)

“We have all of these cultural opportunities practically at our doorstep, and for the last five years we have been letting them go to waste.”

I let her choose the play, and the one she came up with is entitled There (“Geogi”). It is an adaptation of a 1997 play by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson called The Weir. For the terminally lazy, here is the plot summary from Wikipedia:

The play opens in a rural Irish pub with Brendan, the publican and Jack, a car mechanic and garage owner. These two begin to discuss their respective days and are soon joined by Jim. The three then discuss Valerie, a pretty young woman from Dublin who has just rented an old house in the area.

Finbar, a businessman, arrives with Valerie, and the play revolves around reminiscence and the kind of banter which only comes about amongst men who have a shared upbringing. After a few drinks, the group begin telling stories with a supernatural slant, related to their own experience or those of others in the area, and which arise out of the popular preoccupations of Irish folklore: ghosts, fairies and mysterious happenings.

After each man (with the exception of Brendan) has told a story, Valerie tells her own: the reason why she has left Dublin. Valerie's story is melancholy and undoubtedly true, with a ghostly twist which echoes the earlier tales, and shocks the men who become softer, kinder, and more real. There is the hint that the story may lead to salvation and, eventually, a happy ending for two of the characters.

Finbar and Jim leave, and in the last part of the play, Jack's final monologue is a story of personal loss which, he comments, is at least not a ghostly tale but in some ways is nonetheless about a haunting.

The Korean version moves the play to a small bar in Gangneung, on Korea’s east coast. The “synopsis” of the play from PlayDB reads, in typical fashion (that is, consisting of a lot of short sentences and sentence fragments, and attempting to be rather poetic about the whole thing), reads as follows:

Below Gangneung, a small village that looks so much like the end of a [folding] fan that it is even called “Fan’s End.” In this quiet village, a bar near a small beach. In the evening, the old bachelors of Fan’s End gather there. Their daily lives flow along with the conversation they share, as always. But then, a beautiful young woman with a history who has moved from Seoul arrives at the bar. They become lost in each others’ stories, as if drawn by something. Night in the village of Fan’s End, which has so much history, grows deeper as they drink. [A night on which] the crisp taste of beer, the bitterness of soju, and even the sweetness of wine don’t seem like they will go well together...

The Korean version shares much more in common with the original than you might suspect from the above synopsis—the plot is basically the same, but the play has been cleverly adapted to a new cultural context. The last paragraph of the plot summary on Wikipedia notes: “The play is typically Irish, sad and sweet, and is as much about lack of close relationships and missed connections as it is about anything else.” What I found so fascinating about the adaptation was how typically Korean it felt. Part of this may be because bittersweetness is also characteristically Korean, and the social hierarchy makes it very easy to lack close relationships or miss connections. I suspect that this similarity in cultural themes may have been what inspired the selection of the play in the first place. But the adaptation also does a very good job of building convincing Korean characters and depicting convincing relationships between them. One conspicuous difference I noticed in terms of the characters, for example, is that Jim is Jack’s assistant in the original play, but the corresponding character in There appears to be just a local handyman. This is most likely because the employer-employee relationship, on top of the age gap that already exists, would have inhibited the interaction between them required by the play.

I have not seen the original—in fact, I didn’t even look it up on Wikipedia until after we saw the adaptation—so any further speculation on the differences or similarities between the original and the adaptation would be just that: speculation. I can, however, tell you what I thought of the Korean version. As is my wont, I will give you my verdict first and then elaborate on it, and my verdict is: two thumbs up. I really enjoyed the play, both for its content and for the terrific acting.

The acting seems like as good a place to start as any. The play has a rotating cast, with three or four actors taking turns playing each role. The cast that we saw last night consisted of Gang Sinil (playing Jangu, aka Jack), Yi Daeyeon (playing Chunbal, aka Finbar), Song Jaeryong (playing Jinsu, aka Jim), Bak Sangu (playing Byeongdo, aka Brendan), and O Yujin (playing Jeong, aka Valerie). (Yes, I noticed the similarities in the names—the girl seems to be the only exception, as Chunbal’s nickname, “Silba,” rhymes closely with “Finbar.”) I’ve thought hard about it and tried to pick a standout, but I can’t. If I were forced to pick a favorite character, it would probably be Jinsu, because he gets really drunk (and Song Jaeryong plays perhaps the best drunk I have ever seen on stage) and has the best story, but the truth is that all of the actors brought their A-game. I suppose that’s not too surprising; the cast may not look like much to an outsider, but there are some very popular television and film actors in that list. Still, I got the impression that the entire cast poured everything they had into the play and loved every minute of it. That made it so much more fun to watch.

The story itself is quite interesting, and kind of up my alley as it deals with ghost stories and folklore. The play does take a little while to get up to speed as we are introduced to the characters and given an idea of what their lives are like, but this isn’t really a negative—the rest of the play wouldn’t have been as effective without this setup, and some funny things happen during this time. Things start moving with the arrival of the transplant, a painter from Seoul named Jeong. There is a lot of humor early on as all four men vie for her attention, and once again the top-notch acting made for some very funny moments. Things turn toward the supernatural when someone mentions ghosts, though, and we are treated to an escalation of tales until Jeong shares her own story and turns our expectations on their heads.

From here on out I will be discussing the play in detail, which for 99% of you probably won’t matter too much, but if you happen to live in Korea, are a fan of Korean theater, and can understand Gangneung dialect then you should stop reading and see if it is still possible to get a ticket for one of the few shows remaining (the run ends, according to the PlayDB page I linked above, this Sunday, the 24th). For the rest of you, though, read on.

The first story is told by Jangu, the oldest of the men. It is a story of an old woman and her daughter (or it might have been her granddaughter? Already my memory is fuzzy on this) who hear a strange knocking on the front gate late at night, when the rest of the family is away. They then hear a knocking on the back gate, and finally a knocking at the door to their room. They later discover that they built their house over a “ghost road,” and the ghosts were just trying to pass through.

Chunbal, the second oldest, tells the second story. Some children in the neighborhood were holding a s´e;ance, and one of the girls actually claims to see a ghost. She becomes so frightened by the apparition that she becomes catatonic. The girl’s mother runs to Chunbal’s house for help, but Chunbal can’t see the ghost himself.

The final story is told by the youngest of the three local storytellers (Byeongdo does not tell a story). He tells how he was asked to dig a grave at night and is approached by a young woman who tells him not to dig the grave in that place. She leads him to another location and asks him to dig the grave there. Later, at the funeral, he sees a portrait of the deceased—and realizes that it was the girl who approached him during the night.

What is interesting about these three stories is the ever-narrowing gap between story and storyteller. The first story is one that Jangu hears after the fact from the person it happened to, the second story is one that Chunbal is actually part of (though he doesn’t see the ghost himself), and the second story is one in which Jinsu meets the ghost in person. (This gap will be narrowed even further in the next story.)

Of course, each story is scarier than the one before, and it is obvious that the storytellers (though they are all telling the truth) are trying to one up each other to impress and/or scare Jeong. When she gets up to go to the bathroom, though, they realize that they have gone too far, and they agree (after some arguing that provides yet more insight into the history between the characters) to completely drop the subject when Jeong returns.

To their surprise, though, not only does Jeong not want to drop the subject, she tells them that she has been comforted by their tales—that she no longer thinks she is crazy. The men are taken aback, and Jeong quietly begins to tell her own ghost story: how her young daughter was tormented by “people” she saw at night, how this daughter later hits her head on the side of the swimming pool during a meet and dies, how her husband buries himself in his work to forget and grows distant from her, and how she herself loses all motivation and just lies around the house. Then one day when the phone rings, and on the other end she hears a faint voice... her daughter’s voice, telling her that she is at grandma’s house and asking her to come pick her up. Of course, her daughter is not at her mother’s house, but she remains haunted by that call.

The men try to comfort her, coming up with all sorts of rational explanations for their own stories. Only Byeongdo believes and supports her. It’s quite interesting how each of the men try to make their own story as convincing as possible, and how they do indeed seem to believe in their tales, but when confronted with such a heart-wrenching story they feel they have no choice but to deny the entire genre. I think they just don’t know what to say when confronted with such raw grief. I’ve been in that situation before, where you end up saying something pointless because you feel like you have to say something.

Chunbal and Jinsu leave first, leaving Jangu with Jeong, and this is where the older man tells her his final “ghost” story. There is no actual ghost in this tale—just the ghost of his only chance at love, a chance that he let slip away. But the play ends on an upbeat note, and you get the feeling that things are going to be alright. I think the ending might be a little more positive than is realistic, but it seemed to fit, and it was satisfying.

Despite the fact that most of the dialogue in the play focuses on ghost stories, it is not really that scary, and I don’t think it was intended to be. (Although I will say that the two girls sitting next to us jumped and yelped like little kids at the appropriate punctuation moments in each tale.) There was far more humor than horror, and even though Jeong’s story definitely sent a shiver down the spine, the overwhelming emotion I felt while listening to her was sadness. But I suppose that’s the whole point: in the end, ghost stories are about the inability to let go; ghosts themselves are literal manifestations of this inability. The finality of death can be so hard for us to accept that we try to keep alive, in a tangible way, those who have gone on before us. Hearing the voice of a dead child over the phone is something that could easily find its way into a horror film, but here it serves to show us the depth of Jeong’s grief. The men’s subsequent denial of all ghost stories is perhaps their way of trying to help her move on.

But I don’t want to dwell on this point. True, it’s an important point in the play, but to dwell on it might make the play seem more depressing than it was. Maybe that’s why the ending was upbeat—to indicate that this was the beginning of Jeong leaving her past behind her and moving on with her life. I’m still working through all of this, to be honest, still trying to process and digest it. At the time, the play was simply a very enjoyable and engrossing show, but the more I think about it the more there is to ponder. I have a feeling I will be chewing over this one for a while.

I would be remiss if I ended this review without mentioning the setting—that is, the theater itself. It was a very small theater, as are most theaters in Daehangno. This one was the smallest theater in Art One Theater, on the top (fifth) floor, and seated probably about 150 people maximum. I think there were only seven or eight rows total. What this meant is that we were very close to the stage—we were in the back (the sixth row), and the stage was still within spitting distance. But this closeness was not merely a spatial thing—the actors worked the audience into the performance as well. The audience was sitting in what would have been the wall behind the bar, and at one point Jeong looks out into the audience and asks her companions, “Who are the people in those pictures hanging on the wall?” The men then point to various people in the audience and explain who they were and how they fit into the community of Fan’s End. One audience member in particular was the brunt of a joke, and at the end of the show, when the cast came out for their bow, “Byeongdo” brought out a bottle of beer and gave it to this audience member. It was all very clever, and a nice touch.

This is the second time I have seen a play in Daehangno, and this trick of involving the audience seems to be par for the course. I think it’s great, and it makes these performances even more special than they already are. Mind you, I will never sit in the front row at one of these shows, seeing as I have been the only white guy in the audience at both performances, and thus I stick out like a sore (or should I say “frostbitten”) thumb. But I think the concept is nice.

When we left the theater, Hyunjin noted that we spend quite a bit of money when we go to New York to see shows on Broadway, but we have never spent any money to see productions in Daehangno. These tickets were a fortuitous accident, and the tickets for the first play we saw came from a student whom I was advising on her MA thesis (she was writing on the translation of musicals, and the tickets were for the musical she was using as an example). Hyunjin’s point was that Broadway probably doesn’t need our money, but Daehangno does. And that’s true, but it also got me thinking. I have immensely enjoyed both of the shows we have seen on Daehangno—why is it that we only go when we get free tickets? That is a very good question, and I think the answer might be because we are lazy. But I think it is a fault we will have to remedy. Daehangno is only about thirty or forty minutes away from us by bus, which is a lot closer than Broadway; we really have no excuse for going more often. I would like to make it a point in the future of seeing at least one show every few months, three or four a year at least. We have all of these cultural opportunities practically at our doorstep, and for the last five years we have been letting them go to waste.

Anyway, to wrap up the matter at hand, I will reiterate my verdict: There was a great show. It was very funny when it wanted to be, but very touching and moving when it needed to shift gears. The small theater atmosphere was great, especially when everyone laughed at a joke or jumped at a fist slammed on the bar. And being able to see such talented and well-known actors perform so well right there in front of us was a real treat. My recommendation will probably mean little to most of my readers, but there it is, nonetheless.

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