Yi Sang Counts to 13 and Often I Find That I am Naked
A man named Blue is so infatuated with a woman named Green that he can't draw his eyes away from her elbow, which he immortalizes in a poem. Although Green believes "poets are pretentious assholes," she proposes to him immediately and sings "What I Did For Love" while kicking the ever-loving crap out of him. To quote Mocador Production's press release, "Welcome to the strange and fantastic inner world of Korean surrealist writer Yi Sang." And welcome to the New York International Fringe Festival, where wonderful, experimental work like Yi Sang Counts to 13 can thrive.
Playwright Sung Rno's Yi Sang sets out to honor the titular author. But how do you capture a poet who wrote about using severed limbs as candleholders? Straight biography just doesn't cut it. Since imitation is the highest form of flattery, the play adopts Yi Sang's surrealistic style, reenacting his poems. It's tempting to say that the play also follows Yi Sang's love affair with a woman in a green dress, but the character that calls himself Yi says his identity is "open to interpretation."
This maybe-Yi character offers a piece of trivia from the poet's biography to the uninitiated: "Yi Sang," actually a pseudonym, means "strange" in Korean. We soon see how that nom de plume suits both the poet and this tribute: Yi's elbow-glorification poem plays out as a detective film noir. Green's elbow hires a red sock as a hit man to off a white glove for being too short to protect her from the wind.
The play jumps from one non sequitur to the next. Discussing the karma behind burning Ramen noodles, Blue asks, "Are you saying that noodles have souls?" Spotting more than 30 empty Diet Coke bottles, Green warns a caffeine-filled Yi Sang, "A man's gotta know his limits!" Believe it or not, Yi Sang's crackerjack plot goes full circle without appearing remotely contrived. One idea offshoots to the next with a magic that cannot be explained and should not be spoiled.
But what is it all about? Yi Sang is a celebration of the surrealist form, which Blue explains by inverting the Icarus legend. In Greek Mythology, Icarus' wings burned as he flew too close to the sun. Many take this legend as a cautionary tale warning against the pursuit of too much knowledge, but Yi Sang's Blue offers that the "harsh light of the world" burned the wings. In other words: Realism destroys wings. Too much structure confines the artist.
Actor C.S. Lee's Blue provides the magnetic narration that holds the loose structure of the piece together. Deborah S. Craig, in a sexy green dress, plays up her character's exotica stereotype, sporting exaggerated Geisha garb in one scene. It's a fine line to walk, but Craig treads the sensitive subject matter with ease, embodying the notion of exotic beauty only to knock down its racist implications. Like the remaining actor, Paul H. Juhn as Red, she has dead-on comic timing.
The technical team provides the dreamscape wherein these larger-than-life characters boom. Antje Ellerman's set design includes translucent blinds that give the environment a hi-tech, mathematical aura. Josh Bradford's use of footlights and muted blues flood the atmosphere with an ethereal energy, while sound designer Paolo Gomez serves up pulsating techno beats that positively energize the Kraine Theater.
These touches help make Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen the visceral rush that Sung Rno's breakneck script calls for. Like its mentoring ensemble, the legendary Mabou Mines, Mocador Productions reinvents the avant-garde. Mocador's brand of theater isn't weighed down by the pretension that sends the mainstream theater community into coughing fits. Yi Sang is as accessible as the Diet Coke that provides one its ongoing metaphors: It is sweet, not too heavy, and it has the right amount of fizz to shake things up.
Australian martinis are the beverages of choice in Often I Find That I Am Naked, one of the most highly anticipated Fringe imports. The cocktails provide a welcome addition to the piece's sultry lounge atmosphere: two parts potted palm, one part live pianist, one part crushed-velvet couch, one part gold-lined bar, and three parts art-deco barstool. The stage picture oozes sex, which is the focus of this dark comedy.
More specifically, Often I Find That I Am Naked explores the struggle of the "modern woman" in the dating- and meat-markets. And if this sounds like familiar territory...well, it is. The play focuses on Jezebel, who, in her sexual exploits, discovers many new and interesting things. For example: (1) Cute, sensitive, and artsy men tend to be gay; (2) Men usually want sex; (3) Women search for something meaningful, but (4) always push the good ones away. Plus, when romantic disasters leave you high and dry, (5) don't expect a psychiatrist to provide any consolation; these cold creatures care more about money than mental health.
How the show turns this stale material into such an engaging play is something to be seen. Writer Fiona Sprott pushes the envelope of city dwellers' savoir faire. Have you open-minded straight women ever had a lesbian experience? If so, it probably wasn't at the gynecologist's office. (Jezebel deadpans, "She called it an internal examination. I called out her name.") Ever snapped at a proselytizer who tells you that "Jesus loves you?" If so, you most likely did not use Jezebel's reply: "Great, but will He go down on me?"
That quote caused much stir in Dublin, where enraged audience members sent actress Jacqueline Linke death threats. Her arrival in New York was talked-about because of that fact and because she won Best Actress honors in Edinburgh, with good reason. Her Jezebel runs the gamut from impenetrable sangfroid to nervous breakdown without warning. Keith Agius, as The Many "Hims," plays a fine masturbating dog. He does well with his other characters, too, even with certain factors working against him; for example, Suzi Ray provides the same costume (a designer suit) for all of his myriad roles.
Perhaps the production called for all men to look alike; at any rate, philosophy isn't one of this show's strong points. In a silly revision of "Que Será, Será," Jezebel sings, "Maybe be famous, maybe be pretty, but always, always be free." Offering such platitudes and sitcom-style morals, Often I Find That I Am Naked trades more on style than substance; fortunately, it has style to spare.