“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote. Daniel K. Isaac’s Once Upon a (Korean) Time, Ma-Yi Theater Company’s new production, takes this quite literally. Isaac’s characters, played by seven Asian American actors, populate five vignettes, operating simultaneously in five historical moments and in the timeless tales they tell of surviving gruesome experiences—and, sometimes, transcending them.
Isaac himself has been, until now, mostly an actor, currently playing Ben Kim in the TV series Billions. Under the direction of Ma-Yi’s Ralph B. Peña, the versatile cast brings his debut script to life, and the production’s brilliant designers solve complex problems as the performers move back and forth in time among species including birds, fish, a tiger, and a bear, and across the globe (not to mention Heaven and the Underworld), transforming La Mama’s stage from sordid environments to magical ones.
Act 1, “Earth,” begins on a battlefield during the Japanese occupation of Korea, in 1930. As two terrified soldiers (played by Jon Norman Schneider and David Lee Huynh) huddle together under fire, one demands a story from the other to keep from losing his mind. The tale comes to vivid life, manifesting two figures: a beautiful (and pregnant) woman who is simultaneously a mythical figure and the wife of the wounded Huynh, and a “model wife” whose photo Schneider carries in his pack for “bragging rights” and to put his mates off the scent of his homosexuality. “That soldier cut out my picture,” says the model, “and pasted it with leftover rice onto cardboard, carried me around so he had something to talk about, so he could hide something about himself.”
The seven actors portray close to 40 characters, including, after a fashion, themselves.
Huynh’s character dies and is transformed, and we suddenly find ourselves in Act 2, “Water,” in the anteroom of a “comfort station” in 1940s Korea, where three unsuspecting young women (Sasha Diamond, Teresa Avia Lim, and Jillian Sun) have been pressed into service by the occupying Japanese to serve as sexual slaves to soldiers. They matter-of-factly wash themselves between encounters as they complain and dream.
In the third act, “Heaven,” a story these “comfort women” share in their parlor comes alive with Schneider magically transformed into a Sea Dragon (read: drag queen), heralded with thousands of bubbles that descend into the audience. One of the women, somehow still virginal despite her situation, mutates into a character in this tale: Her blind father (David Shih) has lost his wife in childbirth, and their daughter vows to support him; when she fails to return home one night, he searches for her, falls into the sea, and bargains for his rescue with a monk. These characters are simultaneously traditional—imbued with the values (such as filial piety) of their Asian culture—and dazzlingly contemporary, rocking teen slang (‘basic,” “extra”), sexual frankness, and the posturing and style of 21st-century Los Angeles and New York.
The crises of one generation are visited on the next. Occupying soldiers have a way of producing single mothers with children who must sometimes be given up. Stressed-out mother Cheong, played by Sonnie Brown, murmurs, “A defiled betrayer of the motherland with living proof of blended worlds…. I cannot do this alone.” Whereupon a flock of magpies and crows (the work of projection designers Yee Eun Nam and Elizabeth Barrett) snatch up her infant and bear it away, presumably to be adopted by Americans.
In Act 4, “Fire,” set in 1992 Los Angeles, a young woman who’s been adopted by a white family in Orange County arrives at the liquor store run by her birth mother just as the violence wreaked on Korean businesses during the civil unrest in L.A. begins to boil. They huddle together amid shattered glass and encroaching flames and tell each other stories until they are magically rescued.
The final act, bigger and brighter than the others and set in a very contemporary New York restaurant, brings all seven characters together in something like the present for a meeting of the “Adopted Korean Americans Support Group,” over Korean BBQ. Four of them, it turns out, identify as gay; the male couple brings their new baby to dinner, while the lesbians have left their twins at home. Families are formed and disrupted. One of their mothers—who is sure her gay child will burn in Hell—turns up.
And so, five generations of Koreans move through the five acts, growing from swaddled infants to adults who are either “woke” or fixed in traditional attitudes. The young Korean Americans who celebrate in the restaurant are joyously liberated and yet cognizant of the debt they owe their elders. One says to the others, “You should try it sometime with your first parents: Trojan horse the truth out of them through these fables and folk tales.”
At 95 intermission-less minutes, the play is a bit too long and sometimes hard to follow, but the fine visual design and the earthy frankness of the script, the sheer effort to create magic out of squalor, are very winning. The acting is terrific throughout. An enormous crew of designers, including Se Hyun Oh, Phuong Nguyen, Oliver Wason, and Fabian Obispo, is responsible for the mobile diptych structure that centers the simple set (its few boxes standing in for all kinds of furniture), as well as for the costumes, lighting, and sound. The ensemble built this tour de force of a show, making the illusions that turn ancient battle helmets into calabash gourds yielding both wealth and decay, that transform comfort women into princesses, and brutal soldiers into hip gay parents. The seven actors portray close to 40 characters, including, after a fashion, themselves, at the final dinner. There they finish, for us and for themselves, some of the tales left hanging in the earlier sections. Sonnie Brown, playing the mother figure a generation older than the others, offers the benediction: “This is how you came to be.”
Korean culture is definitely having a moment here and now, and Isaac’s play goes a far way toward extending that moment. Better not bring the kids, but don’t miss its many laughs and mysterious transformations. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.