By Ed Kliszus
The Legend of the Waitress and the Robbers is vital, charming, and entertaining and reminds us that just a few can emerge to challenge a tyrannical regime. A black box theater in New York’s East Village. Serious artists. The human spirit survives.
The first scene is set in a cafeteria where workers are served soup provided by the government factory by our waitress heroine (Ju Yeon Choi). They are frustrated with the potage and demonstrably challenge its paltry sustenance. We discover they are not permitted to speak their native language, Korean, and instead must speak English or face severe penalties from governmental law enforcement. They are warned to lower their voices and avoid being heard criticizing government-provided soup. They must not speak in Korean, their banned native language. They are trapped in a mundane, pedestrian vocation of trading and repairing cell phones. Everyone is dressed uniformly. There are no trips to the spa or fashion department store.
The costumes, sets, and props are strikingly spare, with cardboard cutouts depicting phones, books, a record player, and records. Individuals and sets are unsettling in their simplicity and innocence.
Throughout the production, characters switch from English to Korean with subtitles projected in both languages. The visual and aural contrast between written English and Korean language is stinging and presents another image of their persecution.
The subjugated workers are innocent and amiable with simple demands. The more guileless they appear, their greater the persecution and malfeasance of their oppressors. Those with the least resources should be protected, not diminished and subjugated.
Denizens in this world are permitted to communicate via cell phone only. Speaking out loud is not permitted. Books, music, and art are censored, banned, and destroyed, and the government monitors and controls all aspects of life.
The content of this production is important.
The simple scenes are immediately pertinent, disturbing, and personal to anyone with knowledge of living in a dystopian society run by oligarchs or dictators. I recall accounts of my grandparents living in a Soviet Union-occupied Baltic state with government-controlled propaganda and mandatory protracted conscription into a foreign army. The native language and culture were banned. Books were burned, church records were destroyed to erase history, and if one gains permission to write in the native language, they must use the Cyrillic alphabet.
In all dystopian cultures, there is hope. If we are fortunate, heroes emerge and discover means to enact change. A few can indeed make a difference.
Productions by not-for-profits are vital to the intellectual and artistic well-being of our society. It’s notable that The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber features live music with artists performing on a digital keyboard and percussion. We witnessed artistic freedom that produced sharing, experimentation, creativity, and imagination in a venue to promote thoughtful and profound reflection in an entertaining, satisfying manner.
Sets by Carlo Adinolfi, costumes by Laura Anderson Barbata. Musical directors Jacob Kerzner and Hee Eun Kim.
The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber
Written by Renee Philippi, with an original score by Lewis Flinn
Directed by Renee Philippi and Eric Nightengale
Produced by Concrete Temple Theatre, Playfactory Mabangzen, Yellow Bomb Inc., and Dixon Place, in partnership with Korean Cultural Center New York
At Dixon Place
Wednesday, May 25 – Sunday, May 29
Runtime 70 minutes without intermission
161A Chrystie Street, NYC, between Rivington & Delancey Streets)
New York NY 10002