Saturday, June 17, 2017

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017: Hannah and the Dread Gazebo

Left to right: Cindy Im, Amy Kim Waschke, Sean Jones, Paul Juhn. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The idea of theatre being an accurate representation of reality, unconsciously assumed by playwrights for thousands of years, has been called into question by the newest generation of playwrights. Jiehae Park’s latest work dispenses with these assumptions in order to better deliver its complicated message. Hannah And The Dread Gazebo, which sees its world premiere at OSF this year, twists time, space, memory, and reality to capture the meeting point of heritage, mythology, and identity in the Korean-American experience.

Though the action of Hannah is vaguely linear, it meanders into different places to provide a more complete picture of the characters’ journey. We might take a visit into a lonely subway line to learn the Korean creation myth secondhand, or journey into a dreamland, where resides the ghost of Kim Jong Il. Several long stretches of the play are in Korean, with no supertitles: These dialogue segments are used either to illustrate the difficulties of the English-speaking characters, or as comedy, punctuated with goofy uses of body language.

The plot primarily concerns three generations of a Korean family: the titular Hannah (Cindy Im), a fully Americanized medical student struggling to make sense of her identity; her mother (Amy Kim Waschke), confined and tormented, wanting more in her life but able to mask it with a wry sense of humor; and Hannah’s grandmother (Jessica Ko, who plays a number of other minor roles), who ignites the action of the play by throwing herself off a building and into the Korean demilitarized zone.

Im approaches her role with a kind of beleaguered helplessness: She knows actions aren’t going to alter the Korean political climate enough for her to retrieve her grandmother’s body, nor are they going to lower the language barrier between her and the rest of the country (Hannah barely speaks Korean) or solve her relationship problems. Despite this, though, she refuses to go down without a fight, and combats her absurd situation with kindness and whip-smart sarcasm in turn. Meanwhile, Waschke adapts to her increasingly strange surroundings while still maintaining a sense of bewilderment; despite all the bizarre things that happen, she keeps her emotional development grounded and realistic.

Hannah’s brother Dang (Sean Jones) finds himself on his own journey in a subplot that both confronts him with the mythological origin story of Dangun, the founder of Korea, and allows him to come to terms with developing his own identity in a country where everyone looks like him. While Dang is mainly the comic relief character, juxtaposing important facts about the family with a barrage of swearing, Jones injects a sense of frustration into the role that makes him a more sympathetic character. Dang, of all the characters, has the least idea about what’s going on, but we as the audience aren’t mocking him for it; rather, we understand the unfortunate circumstances that surround him.

The remaining characters in the play serve more to support the development of those more central to the plot, but produce equally excellent performances. Paul Juhn plays Hannah’s father: As the only functional Korean-speaker for the majority of the play, much of the work in finding the grandmother’s body falls to him, and he plays the tragicomic subplot of navigating government bureaucracy with a mixture of outrage and hope. Eunice Hong is a nameless girl who meets with Dang on the street: The role mostly serves to provide information about the DMZ and jokes about overenthusiastic activism, but Hong’s high-energy performance makes her a delight to watch. Jessica Ko’s multiple roles are also great, but because many of them are spoilers, it falls on you to witness her navigate them.

The set, designed by Collette Pollard, matches the mix of tradition and bureaucracy that pervades the play. A gorgeous forest sits behind a gray, square set that – thanks to David Weiner’s lighting work – even lights up at right angles. This conjures images of magic trapped within the confines of society, while also abstractly illustrating the Korean DMZ, a wildlife oasis due to the ongoing cold war between the two countries. The square lighting helps cut the otherwise bare stage into smaller parcels, useful when denoting locations like the subway or Hannah’s mother’s tiny apartment.

Hannah and the Dread Gazebo is a play unconcerned with being “proper”; rather, it departs from the known to better transmit its message of identity, mourning, and ambiguity as part of the Korean-American experience. Its strong cast, playful dialogue, and innovative use of language barriers make it a solid, eclectic work.

Hannah and the Dread Gazebo runs through October 28th.

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