“The Goose Father and the North Korean Defector”
Playwright Hansul Jung has had plenty of experience with the social and psychological obstacles created by a life lived in different cultures. Born in South Korea and raised from age six in South Africa, she moved back to South Korea at 15, struggling to fit back in. At 20, Jung transitioned to the USA, where she graduated from Yale’s playwriting program and began writing such works as Among the Dead, which subtly reflected her experiences. Such is the background to her theatrically and intellectually interesting if insufficiently moving and dramatically diffuse Wild Goose Dreams, which had its world premiere in 2017 at the La Jolla Playhouse and is now at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall.
|Michelle Krusiec, Peter Kim, Joél Pérez. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
|Michelle Krusiec, Francis Jue. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
What unfolds under director Leigh Silverman’s (The Life Span of a Fact) generally deft directorial guidance mingles straightforward realism with surrealistic sequences of highly stylized voice and movement (Yasmine Lee is the movement director). There’s also extensive use of an ethnically diverse, seven-member choral ensemble (Dan Domingues, Lulu Fall, Kendyl Ito, Jaygee Macapugay, Joel Perez, Jamar Williams, and Katrina Yaukey).
|Kendyl Ito (rear), Peter Kim, Joél Pérez. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The chorus is extremely busy early on, especially when representing the sounds and comments (“reboot,” “system not responding,” etc.) of two computers having a Facebook conversation, material that greatly overstays its welcome. Moreover, while the chorus lingers on the perimeters, its significance diminishes as the oddly constructed play moves along.
|Lulu Fall, Michelle Krusiec, Francis Jue. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Minsung is a married businessman whose wife (Jaygee Macapugay) and daughter have been in America for seven years, receiving the money he regularly sends. Ultimately, they’ve lost their closeness to him, and he to them. Nanhee, whom he meets on a dating site (his screen name is MrGooseman, hers MinersDaughter), is a North Korean defector, feeling guilt for having left her father behind.
|Peter Kim, Michelle Krusiec. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Social media turn out to be insufficient replacements for the kind of connection Minsung and Nanhee need with another human being. Sadly, the scenes between the lovers tend more toward the ordinary and conventional than anything notably insightful or touching. And, given the sacrifices involved, the defector theme seems weak. Just this morning, the New York Times had a powerful story related to North Korean defectors that would make for far more dramatically compelling subject matter.
|Company of Wild Goose Dreams. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Nanhee’s father (Francis Jue, giving the ripest performance), punished by the authorities for his daughter’s defection, flits in and out via Nanhee’s imagination, serving at first as a sort of narrator. He brings us into the play’s world via an allegorical story about a female angel whose wings are stolen by a man, quite similar to the Japanese tale dramatized in the nō play The Feather Robe (Hagoromo).
|Lulu Fall, Michelle Krusiec, Francis Jue, Peter Kim, Joél Pérez, Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Bird symbolism pervades the play, often fuzzily, especially when depicting penguins, birds that cannot fly. When North Korean soldiers appear, they do so in penguin masks. A penguin even enters via a toilet. And, of course, there’s the titular bird, represented by Minsung, who is what the Koreans call a “goose father,” a man who lives and works in one place and, for job-related reasons, his family somewhere distant. (The Japanese use the term tanshin funin, “bachelor husband”).
|Peter Kim and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Most memorable is Clint Ramos’s exuberantly imaginative set—excellently lit by Keith Parham—which surrounds the audience with neon-bright Korean signage and images redolent of Korean history, families, and traditional and pop culture; even the room’s pillars are painted with colorful Korean designs. The auditorium is arranged proscenium style, with a sparsely dressed set backed by an overhead catwalk. Slits in the floor allow scenic units to emerge and disappear. Steps to the auditorium floor run across the stage front, interrupted at center by a runway thrusting midway into the audience and looking strikingly like the hanamichi used in Japan’s kabuki theatre. Silverman, disappointingly, makes limited use of this potentially exciting feature.
|Michelle Krusiec, Peter Kim. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
While I had no strong desire to fly during Wild Goose Dreams’s sometimes muddled, intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, I can’t really say my heart goes where this wild goose goes.
Public Theater/Martinson Hall
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through December 16