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Review: Once Upon a (Korean) Time, Finding Comfort in Korean Mythology

Daniel K. Isaac's play makes its world premiere with with Ma-Yi Theater Company.

Jon Norman Schneider and David Lee Huynh star in Daniel K. Isaac's Once Upon a (Korean) Time, directed by Ralph B. Peña, for Ma-Yi Theater Company at La MaMa.
(© Richard Termine)

The idea that mythology can provide solace in troubled times is not new. While some people turn to Homer, Shakespeare, Tolkien, or Rowling when they are feeling lost, Daniel K. Isaac's characters look for courage in the literary and oral traditions of Korea. That's in Once Upon a (Korean) Time, which is now making its world premiere with Ma-Yi Theater Company at La MaMa.

In the opening scene, two soldiers (David Lee Huynh and Jon Norman Schneider) cradle each other in a trench as shells explode around them. They mentally escape into the story of brothers Heung-bu and Nol-bu, the latter of whom is greedy and cruel — and lives to pay for it. The next scene features three "comfort women" (Sasha Diamond, Teresa Avia Lim, and Jillian Sun) who find their own comfort in the tale of Shim-Cheong, her blind father (David Shih), and her heroic visit to the Sea King (a fabulously regal Schneider). In the following scene, Cheong (Sonnie Brown) takes refuge in a cave, where her imaginary friends, Tiger (Huynh) and Bear (Diamond) distract her with the tale of a weaver woman falling in love with a cow herder. Later, Cheong hides behind the counter of her convenience store with another woman (Sun) as the Rodney King riots rage outside — a perfect opportunity to recount the Korean version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Sonnie Brown and Jillian Sun appear in Daniel K. Isaac's Once Upon a (Korean) Time, directed by Ralph B. Peña, for Ma-Yi Theater Company at La MaMa.
(© Richard Termine)

Isaac has crafted a grand narrative of one Korean family persisting through the 20th century, despite the horrors visited on a people trapped between some of the largest and most powerful empires in human history. It's fascinating to see how he weaves together their stories, which are consistently more compelling than the fairy tales they employ to fortify themselves.

The last scene takes place in the New York of today, where a meeting is being called to order of the Adopted Korean Americans Support Group over Korean BBQ. "She told me her usual," Jillian (Sun) relays a conversation with her birth mother. "I'm going to hell for being gay; Teresa is not my wife; this isn't a real marriage." Sun delivers these lines as if she's recounting the items she grabbed on her last Duane Reade run, a slight smile and shake of her head telling everyone that these are stale sentiments. Acutely aware of the legitimately violent trauma endured by those who came before her, Jillian cannot seem to muster much outrage for this comparatively mild homophobia.

Sonnie Brown, David Lee Huynh, Jon Norman Schneider, Sasha Diamond, David Shih, Teresa Avia Lim, and Jillian Sun appear in Daniel K. Isaac's Once Upon a (Korean) Time, directed by Ralph B. Peña, for Ma-Yi Theater Company at La MaMa.
(© Richard Termine)

Director Ralph B. Peña facilitates Isaac's honest depiction of family and its complexity with a production that neither flinches nor wallows in its portrayal of the terrible events that make up the story. All seven members of the ensemble cast give performances that are committed without ever devolving into cheap sentiment. A distinctly Korean (and often dark) sense of humor undergirds the action.

Se Hyun Oh's versatile and ever-transforming scenery supports a story that spans over 90 years, as do Phu'o'ng Nguyễn's costumes, which provide for some impressive onstage quick-changes. Lighting designer Oliver Wason and sound designer Fabian Obispo bring the flash and bang of war (in many forms) into the Ellen Stewart Theatre. And Yee Eun Nam creates several magical moments through an all-enveloping projection design. Even with this sophisticated technology, Peña manages to maintain a DIY theatricality in his staging that is regularly surprising and delightful.

There is no "happily ever after" in this presentation of Korean fairy tales, just "and they lived." Sometimes, survival is the best you can hope for when so many don't even get that much.