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Michi Barall (in background), Patrick McNulty, Ron Domingo,
Aaron Yoo, and Paul Juhn in wAve
(Photo © Ralph B. Pena)
A note that crescendoes to a near-boom is heard, courtesy of sound designer Nick Borisjuk. The sound waves that constitute the reverberation are the very cogent point of this aural intro as tipped by the title of Sung Rno's wAve. Soon, a man steps to the long, narrow stretch of water in a rectangular stage-left basin. Marsha Ginsberg's set is dominated at the rear by a backdrop on which colorful manga designs of animals and food are displayed. A hand goes into the water and pushes it forward, causing a wave. Abruptly, a scene begins in which a man in a sharp suit eventually identifies himself as the wave-maker.

The references to waves -- there are more many to come -- are tied to quantum physics, to particle theory. Rno, the son of a physicist who studied physics himself as a Harvard undergraduate and did graduate work in poetry at Brown, seems to have been traumatized as a child in his crib by the very notion of particles and waves. With poetry playing around in his brain as well, he has come to view particles and waves as a metaphor for the straining towards unity in two-partner relationships. Perhaps it's a humanitarian version of what contemporary physicists have long been hoping to codify: the theory of everything.

This description probably makes wAve sound pretentious -- and pretentious it is in its demand on audience members almost certainly less well versed than Rno in quantum theory to grasp his ideas. But like all those particles and waves that presumably fill the universe, there's more here than meets the eye. And what does meet the eye (and ear) in Rno's tragi-comedy isn't too heady for accessibility.

What the playwright has on his mind is actually quite straightforward: Asked some time ago by Chay Yew, director of the Mark Taper Forum Asian Theater Project, if he'd be interested in updating Euripides's Medea as a verse-play comment on the modern Korean-American experience, Rno responded in the affirmative. (He had more than a particle of interest in the idea, you might say.) Thinking along those lines or waves, he envisioned Medea as M (Michi Barall), who has emigrated to America with her computer-career husband Jason (Ron Domingo) but continues to feel alienated. Meanwhile, Jason fits into the new culture more easily and son Junior (Aaron Yoo) more easily still.

Before leaving Korea, M has, Medea-like, left a corpse in her wake: that of a brother (also played by Aaron Yoo as a ghost). Her guilt is compounded by the grief of Jason's dalliance with an actress called Marilyn (Deborah S. Craig). He's starring with her in a film adaptation of Miss Saigon titled Mr. Phnom Penh. Don't ask how computer authority Jason came to be starring in a movie; it has to do with the autocratic whim of the Wavemaker (Patrick McNulty). M, more and more on the verge of a nervous breakdown over her plight, whiles away so much time watching a Pee Wee's Playhouse-like children's TV show that she eventually crashes the set, flummoxing hosts Chinky (Deborah S. Craig) and Gooky (Paul H. Juhn). Following the plot line laid out by Euripides, M gets around to doing the tragic deed that Medea did, but with the one son rather than two.

In Medea, Rno has spotted similarities to contemporary women who come with their men to foreign environments and slip into a neither/nor limbo. They're further estranged from their husbands, whose work has become a means by which they assimilate. In Jason, Rno sees the problems inherent in awkwardly shucking one's past to embrace a seemingly better future; the character's attraction to the Marilyn Monroe-like Marilyn (also played by Deborah S. Craig) covers that ground. The playwright is further disturbed by the stereotypical behavior that immigrants often feel forced to adapt in order to be accepted; that's where Chinky and Gooky, whose Korean accents are exposed as phony, come in. (These two characters, about whom Rno confesses to be embarrassed in a program note, are not unreminiscent of the eagerly smiling Korean-American players in Cookin', also on offer downtown.)

Ron Domingo, Aaron Yoo, and Michi Barall in wAve
(Photo © Ralph B. Pena)
It may be that the advanced understanding needed for quantum physics is a metaphor implying the understanding that eludes immigrants when reaching American shores and, perhaps, for some time after their arrival. Whether or not that's the case, the cluttering physics references only intermittently get in the way of Rno's core intentions. Yes, in the program many of the scenes are given obscure titles ("Node," "Tangent Wave," "Cyberia"), but never mind. In large part, the play works, for reasons including the pull of the Medea myth and Rno's sensitive writing about a disintegrating marriage.

Indeed, there is so much emotion inherent in this subject matter that, in his curtain call, Ron Domingo was barely able to contain the tears he'd worked up during the final sequence. (For all its humor, wAve isn't an upbeat show.) The genuine feeling Domingo exhibits is a testament to Rno's writing but also to the actor's committed performance under Will Pomerantz's committed direction. Pomerantz faced no small challenge in clarifying Rno's complex, sometimes smarty-pants script. That he's done so well and with such visual oomph calls for a pat on back. (Designer Joel Moritz sets the many light waves flowing)

In the Medea role, Barall has the air of a young girl thrust into a situation beyond her years. She conveys the befuddlement of a someone raised to believe that life would and should be simple, only to discover that this couldn't be farther from the truth. Ron Domingo isn't playing Euripides's adventuring Jason; rather, he's an everyday working guy who thought he married someone easily understood but who soon realizes that nothing about her is easy. The frustration he communicates so beautifully is the cause of those tears at the play's denouement.

Neither Craig as Chinky and Marilyn nor Juhn as Gooky are required to go for realism -- well, not until they drop their Chinky and Gooky affectations. Their broad clowning is amusing, but inherent in it is the pain of people behaving as they're expected to behave and not as they'd like to present their true selves. (Craig's Marilyn Monroe is also a telling caricature.) Yoo portrays the videogame-playing Junior with appropriate adolescent confusion, and a special commendation goes to McNulty as the Wavemaker. At the top of the play, this actor's turn as a movie mogul is as expert as if he were recently been a fly on Harvey Weinstein's office wall. Curt and crude and funny, the performance is so engaging that audience members may find themselves hoping to see McNulty return often during the remainder of the proceedings. He doesn't, but his subsequent appearances are entirely welcome.

The Ma-Yi Theater Company is continuing its commitment to exploring Asian-American issues. With this production, it definitely makes waves.

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