Right now I’m cozying on my couch and listening to the rain patter on my windows. This is a good night! I’ve just come back from seeing MaYi Theater Company’s Among the Dead, a 90-minute play written by South Korean playwright Hansol Jung, performed at the HERE Arts Center.
It’s a story set in three time periods and places. A Seoul hotel room, 1975. A jungle in Myanmar during WWII, 1944. The bombing of Hangang Bridge in Seoul, South Korea, 1955. It’s kind of complicated to explain without going too in-depth, but Ana Woods, played by the lovely and poised Julienne Hanzelka Kim, comes back to Seoul with a pot of her father’s ashes in 1975. Her father, Luke Woods, played by the riveting and dynamic Mickey Theis, was an American soldier in WWII. During the war, he meets Number Four, played by the hugely talented and powerful Diana Oh, a Korean “comfort woman” who had escaped from a Japanese camp. Part of the story is also told when Four looks back on her experience during the bridge bombing. Long story short, with the involvement of Jesus, courtesy of the multi-talented, hilarious Will Dagger, and some spam, Ana reconnects with her parents’ history in more ways than one.
The final verdict is first so that people who still want to see the play aren’t plot-spoiled! Read below the line if you want to see a more in-depth review. Haha I just kind of vomited my thoughts out. I’m by no means a professional reviewer, just a theater kid with opinions.
Final Verdict: Definitely do not miss this production, especially with those ill $25 tickets 😉
Among the Dead is a wonderfully paced, seamlessly and skillfully interwoven collection of three real Korean/American narratives that are extremely important. Though slightly set back by dialogue that is at times too obvious or too cliché, it more than makes up for it with its beautiful story, masterfully designed set, lights, and sound, and exceedingly talented and dynamic cast and crew.
You can still catch it until November 26th! Click here to read more about it and/or order tickets! Definitely urge you to support the diverse cast/crew of artists by attending; you also get a night of good theater!
I support MaYi theater company’s mission to make the theatre industry more inclusive of all races, genders, orientations, religions, and more! They’ll certainly be seeing more of me!!
SPOILERS BELOW!! Consider yourself warned.
Oh the rain’s just gotten more violent. Haha, let’s begin.
Writing: There were some delightfully clever and subtle plot devices! The three disparate stories were woven seamlessly, and it moved at just the right pace. However, some of the dialogue seemed slightly cliché, and at points it seemed that the actors could recognize it as well.
A lot of this came out when Jesus had his banter with Ana or Four – it was kind of this pattern where one of the women would say something, Jesus would parrot it back (because it’s funny), and the woman would confirm it. It got kind of old.
Luke’s character was also skirting the border between emotional and cliché, especially in the high drama after his sexual encounter with Four.
When Jesus was reassuring 4 in the end, telling her to stay alive to contribute to the world… Maybe it’s just the nature of the subject matter, or my own deeply, deeply internalized shame when confronted with emotional sensitivity, but some of the uplifting lines turned into cheesy throwaways.
Jesus’ character was slightly too puerile for me a lot of the time, but I did enjoy his humor and physical comedy when he and Number Four were doing the jiggy dance but she had a knife. That was adorable, hilarious, and perfectly cruel enough to set the audience up for the bridge bombing.
Oh and the final line… Perfect. Deserved. Loved it. Loved the subtle era-specific references/tie-ins within all the different time periods.
Story: Great story, great concept, necessary story… I loved it.
Characters: Great, wonderfully developed characters. Just some qualms about Luke.
I loved the strong women characters. I thought Will Dagger was hilarious and perfect for the many characters he played as Jesus. I respect Luke as objectively a well-written character, but I don’t respect his character as a person. I could not get over his white savior complex, and I don’t think I had enough time to become attached to him to be that devastated when he tried to turn tail and run away from Four and his child. His character is the main reason I did not leave the play completely satisfied or happy/hopeful for the future. I was very uncomfortable with him, maybe also because he reminded me of someone I don’t respect in real life for similar reasons. More on this below.
Set/Lighting/Sound Design: I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH HOW INCREDIBLE THESE WERE. BLOWN AWAY. IMPECCABLE. This was really what brought all three stories together so professionally and so seamlessly!
The set design allowed the actors to crawl under the stage like soldiers crawling through the mud. The hotel room design was spot on and instantly placed the audience in a setting we could understand. The hotel room wall being a scrim was incredible, I’m still in awe of when it was first revealed to be see-through, DAMN!
The lighting was SO great, especially to show the passage of time. I loved the hotel room window and how it changed colors/cast a window shadow. What a great way to do lighting but set the tone of a scene. The sound was wonderful, and the bursts of period music were great and appropriate.
The only place in which the set was ever possibly lacking was in a setting that was used only twice, and briefly – when Luke and his military commander have their conversations, there’s a little wooden panel that’s supposed to be lifted up to symbolize home base (I think?). It was kind of ineffectual because I didn’t really understand what it was supposed to be beyond “this is a set change,” but I think it was okay for the brief time it was even employed.
On Luke and telling stories of Asian women falling in love with white men: It didn’t do enough to subvert the trope of the Asian woman falling in love with a white soldier during war.
Four and Luke are automatically not in a healthy relationship, given the nature of their power dynamics and the other parts of their situation during WWII. That they even continue interacting with each other is based on the fact that Luke knowingly withholds information from Four!
Fine, when Luke started crying because Four used his rifle to kill other people, I was like… Ah, yes. Toxic masculinity is being called out. The playwright is exposing this confident mediocre white man as a coward, refusing to glorify soldiers or the war experience. That’s all good and fine, but then… Luke sexually assaults Four (yes it was sexual assault because of their dynamics) and faced virtually no bad consequences.
Also during this, Four was being played by the same actress who plays Ana, Luke’s daughter – but that’s a separate can of worms.
Luke has a bad dream sequence (perhaps this is PTSD) and is having a horrible time, but… It does not excuse him from the assault. Four leaves him in the night. But then she comes back to him! She quickly trusts him again! Together they dream about the life they’ll have together when they are out of the war, and future Four looks back on it with sentimentality and sadness. Here I feel like the playwright is trying to make the audience empathize with their beautiful love story (or maybe how closely it follows the assault is cruelly intentional) but frowned throughout it because I felt really uncomfortable with the emotionally intimate way Luke was touching Four, given how he had touched her just the night before. I don’t think there was enough acknowledgement of how such an assault would affect Four’s trust, or how her previous experience at the Japanese camps would inform her reaction to being assaulted yet another time. I was dissatisfied, and this made me jaded for the rest of the performance. I refused to empathize with Luke.
Then the way that Four was pining after Luke – sounding joyful when he falsely promised to come back for her, living on a bridge for four years just to see him – I hated this. It felt like seeing yet another exotic Oriental flower wilt away after her white savior fled to America because he could. That’s exactly what happened here, that’s exactly what happened in Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon and probably countless other plays and musicals, but #thisis2016 and I still didn’t feel a complete subversion/criticism of this tired trope. It’s good that they never really said I love you to each other, and in fact Four says “I hate you” to him while giving birth (tonight I watched a simulated birth on stage y’all), but… It wasn’t enough. Not even coming from an Asian playwright.
Most Memorable Moment!
The most moving part for me was when Older Four was almost drowning and Younger Four was giving birth to Ana. Older Four is painfully recounting her experience at the Japanese camps, counting the number of soldiers who assaulted her every week, while Younger Four is being held by Luke as she screams from the excruciating pain of childbirth. I’m noticing now the parallels between the two, being held by men whose company they do not want but have no choice but to hold. They both collapse when the pain is too much to bear. I choked up at how beautifully the parallel was staged. The contrast between the “indecent”/indelicate squatting of Younger Four and the more proper grieving kneel of Older Four… I understood. The pregnancy provided the gateway to Older Four’s real and unfettered emotions – the grief, rage, and fear from vulnerability. Older Four’s delivery (ha ha……..) of the stabbing monologue was so gut-wrenching to watch coupled with seeing Younger Four’s childbirth.