Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: Searching for Truth

By Michael Block 

There are a plethora of stories that rarely get a platform to be heard. Ma-Yi Theater Company is a organization that strongly champions important stories and voices. And they have done it again with Hansol Jung's brilliant Among the Dead, playing HERE Arts Center. With surrealistic undertones, Among the Dead follows Ana Woods as she learns the truth of her parents through the horrors of war. This play may bring war to the forefront, but Jung's drama is an exceptional family saga.
Hansol Jung offers a unique brand of storytelling. Set in three distinct times and places, it's easiest to describe Among the Dead as magical memory. In 1975 Seoul, Ana learns the truth of her lineage when she receives a journal from her recently deceased father, Luke Woods. Anna is the daughter of a “comfort woman” and an American GI. When Luke's entries begin to come to life, Ana is thrust directly into the past as Luke and “Number Four” meet in the jungles of Myitkyina, Myanmar in 1944. And in 1950, Number Four finds herself on the Hangang Bridge on the verge of the bridge’s bombing. Jung shares the story by shifting time and narrative but things get funky when Ana takes the identity of her mother. Yes, theatrically speaking it's a fascinating device but we have to talk about THAT moment. As Ana begins to shift into the entries, Jung invites us to see the moment of intimacy. This means visually, Luke is forcing himself on Ana, his daughter, as Number Four. Intended or not, it came off as incest, pulling complete focus. It begs the question of the importance of the moment. It certainly did not detract from the overall perception of the play but it called attention to the narrative and storytelling. We had previously learned the truth so it wasn't as if this was new information. Sadly, this moment begs the question of necessity or shock value. Thankfully, Jung quickly recovered thanks to her powerful and fervent writing. One of the most appreciated elements of Jung's script is that while a strong commentary on war is presented, its hidden within a captivating relationship play and the journey of finding the answers of the past. She keeps the audience on their toes as the mystery unfolds, though subtlety and vagueness do play a slight role. For example, why is Ana in Seoul? The answer is briefly touched on as Luke had agreed to be buried, or in this case scattered, in Number Four's homeland. But missing that key part influences the comprehension of the story.
photo by Hunter Canning
Among the Dead is a play of great complexity and intricate layers. The four piece acting company accepted the challenge of navigating time and space. Along with director Ralph B. Pena, the success of this play depending greatly on clarity. As a whole, they did a mighty fine job. Among the Dead was, primarily, Ana's journey through the past. Julienne Hanzelka Kim took her character through the emotion motions, checking into an array of feelings. And they were often quite heightened. As Luke, Mickey Theis played the monotony of war but when he freed up, he came to life. Theis pulled out the All-American charm despite the unsettling conditions. Will Dagger brought a welcomed lightness and humor to, well, Jesus. That being said, there was a slight lack of stability in his performance. Dagger's presence needed to be more grounded to truly grasp the significance of the character. Diana Oh as Number Four offered a heartbreaking performance. Oh naturally tapped into the horrors of war to pull out a strong character.
Among the Dead required a heightened sense of storytelling that demanded perfection and intricacy. One tiny flaw could derail the entire production. Luckily, director Ralph B. Pena’s strong focus on story, which extended into the overall design, propelled this play to the top. Scenic designer Reid Thompson created a magical world of wonders. At first glance, we see a 70’s inspired hotel room that filled the entire space. But the reality of war found its way in. With the jungle surrounding, Thompson and lighting designer Oliver Wason created theatrical magic. Between the world beyond the wallpaper and the hidden traps, Pena’s staging allowed you to wonder what other tricks were up his sleeves. But for those few who don’t like surprises, Thompson didn’t always hide the magic so well, exposing the flaws of the design. Kenneth Goodwin’s extraordinary sound design captured the essence of Jung’s world. With the ambiance of war and the importance of the radio, Goodwin played into the necessity of reality. And it worked. Perfectly.
Among the Dead is bound to draw some criticism with some of the content but regardless, Hansol Jung’s play is a winner for Ma-Yi.