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Review: ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME at LA MAMA COMES IN HOT, STIRS THE POT

Review: ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME at LA MAMA COMES IN HOT, STIRS THE POT

At the Ellen Stewart Theatre through Sept. 18

Presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company and directed by Obie-winner Ralph B. Peña, the world premiere of Daniel K. Isaac's ambitious nested-narrative play, ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME comes in hot and stirs the cultural pot, layering traditional Korean folk tales amidst a legacy of trauma, love, and endurance.

In 90 minutes with no intermission, five interconnected chapters comprise the arc of the compelling shapeshifting play, spanning the years 1930-now. Every scene reveals at least one story; some also include a retelling of a fable whose relevance isn't fully apparent until later.

Review: ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME at LA MAMA COMES IN HOT, STIRS THE POT
John Norman Schneider, David Lee Huynh

The play opens (explosively) in 1930 in a trench on the frontlines of The Korean Independence battle. Two soldiers (David Lee Huynh and Jon Norman Schneider) hold their ground while retreating into a luxury/poverty fable of brotherhood familiar to them both. The story (and the soldiers' proximity) fuels a chemistry between them that transcends situational camaraderie.

In subsequent scenes that jump both years and continents, Pe?a and his talented cast explore themes of cultural and gender identity, sexuality, personhood and empowerment.

In the second chapter (that I found both delicate and disturbing), we witness the bond forged among a trio of women at a 1943 "comfort station" at the Korean Peninsula. Even in the worst of abusive circumstances as sex slaves, they find a modicum of self-soothing within a daughter's story on behalf of her blind father.

Review: ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME at LA MAMA COMES IN HOT, STIRS THE POT
Sasha Diamond, Teresa Avia Lim, Jillian Sunn

Shim-Cheong (Sonnie Brown): "You/ You are not a soldier you are the sea captain/And this is a ship in the middle of a storm/And I/I am sacrificing myself for my father/So that he may regain his sight/I am Shim-Cheong/I am Shim-Cheong/I am."

Shim-Cheong's reframing of her captive-relation to her persecutors is powerful testimony to a story's ability to provide distraction, dissociation, or both. This dark scene seems far removed from the final chapter, set in a New York City Koreatown restaurant where a boisterous bunch of friends gather to share perspectives on life, livelihood, and the Korean version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Whether you agree or disagree with Shim-Cheong's assertion that "People don't have roots. People have legs," I encourage you to immerse yourself in this story-rich journey made all the more beautiful by the work done by its creative team: Se Oh (scenic design), Phuong Nguyen (costume design), Oliver Wason (lighting design), Yee Eun Nam (projection design), Fabian Obispo (sound design), Alexander Wylie (props design), and Alyssa K. Howard (production stage manager).

Even if you're unfamiliar with the brutal and beautiful Korean fables referenced in this play, lush narrative details unwind throughout to provide ample connection to the source material. And if you want even more detail, scan the QR code on the venue card to read the fables in their entirety. ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME is, in a word, fable-ous.

The cast for ONCE UPON A (korean) TIME includes Sonnie Brown, Sasha Diamond, David Lee Huynh, Teresa Avia Lim, Jon Norman Schneider, David Shih, and Jillian Sun with Daniel K. Isaac and Sami Ma serving as understudies.

Photo Credit: Richard Termine

 

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From This Author - Derek McCracken


Review: ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME at LA MAMA COMES IN HOT, STIRS THE POTReview: ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME at LA MAMA COMES IN HOT, STIRS THE POT
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Presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company and directed by Obie-winner Ralph B. Peña, the world premiere of Daniel K. Isaac’s ambitious nested-narrative play, ONCE UPON A (KOREAN) TIME comes in hot and stirs the cultural pot, layering traditional Korean folk tales amidst a legacy of trauma, love, and endurance.

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