BWW Review: NEXT STOP: NORTH KOREA Offers a Journey Like No Other
It's somewhat rare in the DC theater scene to have the opportunity to see a show that transcends the line between my two worlds - international affairs/national security "stuff" and theater - written and performed by someone who also exists in both worlds. I first discovered John Feffer during the Capital Fringe Festival a few years back when I raved about his play, The Politician. This time, he personally takes us to a place that may be quite unfamiliar to even many of DC's best foreign policy and national security junkies with Next Stop: North Korea, ably directed by Angela Kay Pirko.
It's present day. A Scottish representative of Gonzo Tours meets his newest group of intrepid travelers to North Korea in Beijing, China. He can't emphasize the need to follow rules enough, sharing a story about an American college student who may have (or may not have) taken a propaganda poster to emphasize his point. Staying with the group is imperative as is showing respect to the Leader.
Flash back to 1998. John Feffer is making his own trip to the mysterious land eager to establish an exchange program. The trip does not go exactly how he'd prefer it. There's a famine yet he is treated to a banquet and urged to eat more. The itinerary is carefully planned and there is virtually no room for flexibility (save for a somewhat impromptu visit to an architectural institute) and certainly no opportunities to engage in dialogue (frank or otherwise) with the locals. His minder Mr. Kim may have spent time in New York and discovered the wonders that are pastrami sandwiches and American music, but he's very much a model representative of the government and what it values.
In a series of vignettes, supported by personal photos projected on a screen, we experience Feffer's travel throughout the country and are introduced to some of the people he met along the way (e.g. a driver, an architect...), what they value, and how they see the world. Prior to his travel, juche (essentially self-reliance) was just an ideology he read about in books - something the "other" holds near and dear to his heart. Throughout the course of his exploration, he learns more about what he values as a person (so American, right?) and assesses the extent to which his own values differ or align with those of the Korean people he meets and his fellow Americans. He shares his struggle with operating how he is most comfortable in a such a unique environment. Compromise, he learns, is a must, but doing so is easier said than done.
Feffer is a brilliantly descriptive writer adept at fleshing out the details of people and the situations they encounter. His selection of vignettes, while varied, collectively shed light on the North Korea culture - albeit seen through the light of an American who, like all of us, has some pretty tightly held beliefs - and contribute equally to making the point that it's really hard to do good in such a morally confusing environment.
If I were to offer one or two criticisms it would be the transitions from scene to scene (or vignette to vignette) and some of the acting.
The transitions - at least at the performance I attended - were interminable. The lights go to black as Feffer nearly endlessly adjusts or puts on a costume piece or two. Little to no attempt is made to use sound elements to keep the audience in the moment during these transitions. Perhaps if this show is to have a future life, he might bring on a technical expert to help him use sound, light, and projection elements cohesively to the utmost advantage. (Kaitlyn E.M. Sapp is credited with the sound, which does provide ambience at a few points in the show.)
Likewise, understandably, John Feffer is most at ease playing himself - although he also does a pretty good job playing the Scottish tour guide (complete with a somewhat believable accent). While he is undoubtedly a brilliant playwright capable of retaining the audience's interest with words alone, I wondered how much stronger the performance would have been if he had cast another actor in the show or at least used one to portray everyone other than himself. It's not a bad performance by any means though.
All told though this production is unique and deserves to be seen.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission
NEXT STOP: NORTH KOREA plays through March 24, 2019 at the DC Arts Center (2438 18 Street, NW in Washington, DC). Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4072663.
Graphic: Courtesy of show page on the DC Arts Center website.