By Donna Herman
I saw “Among the Dead” by Hansol Jung, a production of the Ma-Yi Theater Company performed at HERE Arts Center last night and it left me frustrated. I admit, my expectations were high. The play is billed as “a dark comedy about a family broken apart by betrayed promises, and finding each other through SPAM, journals, and Jesus. Mostly Jesus.” Which sounds promising, and the company has garnered quite a name for itself developing and presenting works by Asian-American artists.
The program told me that the play was going to weave three separate time periods; a hotel room in Seoul, South Korea in 1975; the jungle and U.S. encampments during the WWII Burma Campaign in 1944 and 1945 when the US, British & Chinese armies fought together against the occupying Japanese Army which had kidnapped or coerced young Korean women and conscripted them as sex slaves known as “comfort women” for its soldiers; and the Hangang Bridge in Seoul in 1955. Specifically, on the eve of the bridge’s bombing by the fleeing South Korean army to prevent the North Korean forces from advancing. It is estimated that of the 4,000 South Korean refugees on the bridge when it blew, somewhere between 500 to 1,000 died. Dark comedy indeed.
Written in a kind of magical realistic style where Jesus (Will Dagger) is a character in all three time periods, the play begins in its earliest setting, 1944. A young American soldier, Luke (Mickey Theis), and a young Korean woman dressed in a Japanese Army jacket and shorts, Number Four (Diana Oh,) are having a hurried argument. He’s giving her the brush-off as his unit is preparing to go, and she’s confused, “you said we go home together.” He gives her the “it’s complicated” line and she makes him promise to come back for him in a year and meet him on the Hangang Bridge in Korea. Obviously lying, he placates her and says he will. She’s not as dumb as her broken English has him believing, and she thrusts a baby into his arms and essentially says, great, things are complicated here too, you take the baby, see you in a year. They agree to name the baby Anastasia, but call her Ana, and they part.
Jump to an empty hotel room in Seoul, South Korea in 1975. In walks Ana (Julienne Hanzelka Kim), a young woman carrying a large box, out of which she takes what is clearly a funeral urn with someone’s remains. She makes a beeline for the mini fridge and sucks down two small bottles of booze and asks the silent urn why she’s there. Ask and you shall receive. In this case, delivered by a Bellboy who turns out to be Jesus. He hands her an unmarked package which turns out to be the WWII journal of her late father. Out of which drops a handwritten note in Korean, with nothing but a name and telephone number.
Jesus has kindly delivered some killer weed to Ana which she smokes as she starts to read the journal. And since she’s not in charge of her faculties or her life, this doesn’t turn out so well for her. Somehow, between Jesus’ machinations and the marijuana, young Luke, back in 1944, lost in the jungle, and half out of his mind after witnessing a horrific event, finds himself in Ana’s hotel room in 1975. He thinks Ana is Number Four whom he has just come across in the jungle and has mistaken for a Japanese soldier.
Ruh roh. This is where things start to get crazy and spin out of control. Not only for the characters, but for the audience as well. Luke is threatening to shoot Ana who has no idea what’s going on. Jesus is still hanging around with Luke and is trying to talk him out of attacking her, but is not having much luck. At first Ana thinks she is tripping, but then Jesus throws her the journal and tells her to read the page where they meet, and Ana realizes what’s going on. She plays along, reading her lines from the journal and Luke, confused, remembers Number Four and is drawn to her instead of afraid of her. Which turns into a major ick moment for the audience. We understand that Luke is her father, and thinks she’s her mother, but did Ms. Jung have to play out Ana’s conception scene so graphically with Ana as the stand-in for her mother? Here’s a tip – that’s a bridge too far for American audiences. The scene ends with a big explosion from the protestors outside the hotel in 1975.
At this point, I thought the play was over. It was about 45 to 50 minutes in and it felt like (you’ll pardon the expression) the climax to me. But no, we were only halfway there. We had another bridge to cross. Literally. The Hangang Bridge where Ana showed up in 1946 and wound up waiting for four years. On the bridge. Not leaving. Jesus tries to talk her off the bridge, but she’s sure Luke will show up and won’t budge. Jesus decides to hang out with her and they start reviewing her life and the scenes flash back and forth between the bridge in 1950 and the jungle in 1944 where the actress playing Ana is now playing Number Four. We get to see the evolution of Luke and her relationship and how they fell in love. And how Ana was born, and how Luke got back to his unit, and the choices Luke was faced with about Number Four and what he did and did not do.
Ms. Jung’s reach exceeds her grasp as she attempts to give us a history lesson, comedy, and deeply moving drama rolled up into one package. There are elements of all three here, but in the end, it fell short on all accounts. Too confusing to be a true history lesson, I wound up looking everything up online when I got home. The subject matter is too “dark” for comedy although there were some funny lines, and Will Dagger as Jesus has excellent timing and a light touch. And the couple of highly dramatic moments turned cringe-worthy and melodramatic instead of resonant and affecting. Mr. Pena did an excellent and inventive job of staging the interwoven action, and the actors too, did good work. Ms. Jung needs to do a little less in the future. Trust the events to speak for themselves and don’t work so hard.
“Among the Dead” by Hansol Jung, Directed by Ralph B. Pena
WITH: Will Dagger (Jesus); Julienne Hanzelka Kim (Ana Woods); Diana Oh (Number Four); Mickey Theis (Luke Woods)
Dramaturgy by John M. Baker; costume design by Becky Bodurtha; sound design by Kenneth Goodwin; fight director, Galway McCullough; props master, Alberto Ruiz; scenic design by Reid Thompson; production stage manager, Jennifer Delac; assistant stage manager, Sarah Devo Ford; production manager, Libby Jensen; technical director, Kate August; producer, John Kurzynowski. Presented by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, Jorge Z. Ortoll, Executive Director. Through 11/26 at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue. Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, by calling 212 352 3101, or at http://here.org/shows/calendar/