BWW Review: Strong, But Bewildering HANNAH AND THE DREAD GAZEBO - An Enlightening Korean Tale
The Fountain Theatre, in association with East West Players, soundly mounts the California premiere of Jiehae Park's HANNAH AND THE DREAD GAZEBO with a solid acting ensemble, complemented by vividly effective video visuals. Jennifer Chang ably directs her talented cast of six as they weave through the realistic lives of a Korean family (separated by continents) interspersed with flashes of Korean folklore. New Yorker Hannah, a couple of weeks away from taking her medical board exams, receives a FedExed package from her grandmother in South Korea. For the life of Hannah, she can't figure out why her grandmother sent her the 'Wish,' an enclosed rock in a vial, accompanied by a hand-written note in Korean. Luckily her dry cleaner speaks and reads both English and Korean. The dry cleaner's cautiously cryptic in translating the missive. After repeated failed attempts to phone her family in Korea, Hannah finally finds out from her brother and father that her grandmother had jumped off the roof of her retirement home (hence the unexpected package?).
Monica Hong, as Hannah, the Americanized daughter returning to her place of birth, easily nails the hyper stressed attitude of the soon-to-be physician living in New York. Hannah, though realizing her life-changing exams are only days away, knows her priorities - her family, distant as they are - and books a flight to Korea. The realistic scenes of the reunited family at the family condo and the hospital waiting room will tug your heartstrings.
Hahn Cho knowledgably gives his role of Hannah's Father an untraditionally woke hipness as he talks on his cellphone while biking, his main means of transport. Easy to see where Hannah inherited her logical problem-solving skills from. Father usually knows his family and how to deal with and manage them, but Grandmother's actions have him flummoxed.
Gavin Lee inhabits Dang, Hannah's cool musician brother who also left Korea to make his mark in the U.S. His dreams (?)/hallucinations (?) feature the telling of the integral Bear-and-Tiger folktale. During one of his need-to-get-away-to-think subway rides, he meets a volunteer passing out pamphlets. Wonjung Kim makes her notable mark as the impassioned volunteer half-fan-girling Dang, half-berating him.
Janet Song IS Mother, the family matriarch who just might not have it all together as everyone expects. Song's as convincing in her realistic scenes as she is in the fantasy scenes interacting with the creatures sharing her space there.
Hong, Lee and Kim should also each be complimented on their adept handling of their respective fast-talking, verbose monologues.
Jully Lee skillfully plays the aptly-named Shapeshifter, the multi-charactered part that portrays all the additional characters in HANNAH's narrative. The versatile Lee (with great assist from the character traits-revealing costume designs of Ruoxuan Li) morphs from Grandmother to the dry cleaner, the Bear, the mysterious man on the subway, the nurse, the South Korean official, the North Korean dictator, and more.
As wonderfully visual the fantasy scenes were presented, I remain confused with the fate of the bear and tiger in the folktale and their specific significance in Hannah's family's plight. HANNAH resembles a Russian nesting doll, with a dream within a dream within a dream, with a little politics sprinkled in (how can you not when set on the border of North and South Korea). Running out of realistic options; Father and Dang, and eventually Hannah, resort to calling on their folklore 'Wish' for results.
Don't worry if Korean is not your language. The actors' expressive hand signals and frequent English idioms popping in, will be quite enough to give you the gist of the plot. Clever stage device of a magic click sound effect (from sound designer Howard Ho) that has the characters first talking in Korean, then smoothly in English.
Kudos to scenic/video designer Yee Eun Nam for her wonderfully effectual video images of the various settings HANNAH takes place in - New York City, the family's living room, the dry cleaners, the traveling subway train, the rooftop of the retirement home, the garden of fantasy, and much more. Nam's illustrative backgrounds eliminate any need for major scene changes. Only a few benches and Father's bicycle needed to be placed by the actors.
Adding to the fantasy aspect of HANNAH, magic tricks (from magic consultant Dominik Krzanowski) occasionally surprised The Fountain Theatre audience.
HANNAH's realistic and very touching Korean family scenes would parallel, or stand in for any family, in any nation, going through their own family crisis. Nice!