review: Among the Dead

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by Hansol Junt
Directed by Ralph B. Peña
Featuring Will Dagger, Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Diana Oh, Mickey Theis
Ma-Yi Theater Company @ HERE (SubletSeries@HERE) 145 6th Avenue
November 6, 2016 – November 26, 2016
production site

[featured image caption: Among the Dead. [L-R] Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Diana Oh, Mickey Theis. Photo: Hunter Canning.]

Each location in the three time periods of Hansol Junt’s Among the Dead is partially on the way to somewhere else. A Seoul, South Korea hotel room in 1975. A Seoul bridge in 1955. Jungle battle locations of the Second World War Burma Campaign in 1944. This is a memory play like The Glass Menagerie, but unlike Tom reflecting from a future time upon a single pivotal period of his family life in Depression-era St. Louis, Among the Dead is a play about people seeking home, and in the end reaching out to each other.

Playing spaces surround a conventional raised set, evoking a modest quality hotel room (bed, table, closet, window, cheap wall paper) in Seoul, 1975 (the playbill gives the year while clothing and few political references pinpoint the ’70s with specificity). You feel the mold, and our arriving American traveler Ana (Julienne Hanzelka Kim) sets out her belongings, checks the closets and drawers, tests the bed. We sink with her from the present of the play (1975 Seoul, South Korea) into past eras that affect her present task to dispose of the ashes of her recently deceased father Luke (Mickey Theis), an American GI stationed in Korea in the late 1940s and the mother she never knew (Diana Oh) who had been a comfort woman to Japanese troops.

Ana learns about her father (a reluctant soldier and a blundering sex partner) in a journal provided by a bell boy named Jesus (Will Dagger). Magic realism binds the layers and Jesus keeps Ana focused on her quest. This is a story of resolution with stories enacted from the past.

The drama plays more as dance and choreographed imagery than conventional plot exposition. Characters lie on the bed of the Seoul hotel in one time period and sometimes two time periods co-exist; characters crawl from under and around the stage to a dirt jungle floor in another time period; characters are revealed upstage behind a scrim in the most shadowy and mystical third period. Actress Kim plays mother as a teenager and herself in her 20s, while the masterful and stolid Diana Oh takes on the role “behind the scrim” so to speak, in the post-war ’50s while she waits for her American GI to return to her with the child she bore him. (Shades here of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly or the popular tune “Poor Butterfly” it inspired, evoking the lover waiting for her man: “Poor Butterfly, ‘neath the blossoms waiting / Poor Butterfly, for she loves him so.”)

The mystical Jesus guides Oh’s character to a resolution that pulls all the stories together.

These various playing levels and layers of perception in staging and lighting, leading into the behind-the-scrim and wall reveal late in the game, uses a technique New York audience encountered in Arlington staged at Vineyard Theatre in early 2014. In this song cycle, a military wife awaits her husband’s return, while slowly losing her mind.

2014-arlington-alexandra-silber-ben-moss-sara-krulwich
Arlington. [L-R] Alexandra Silber, Ben Moss. Set design by Dane Laffrey, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau. Image: Sara Krulwich.
In both cases, set and lighting designs work successfully in tandem to craft a world of memory and emotion. Among the Dead, Hansol Junt’s dreamy history and myth-infused story of shards of family being assembled across generations and war zones, haunts and enchants.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 17, 2016)

Playwright | Hansol Junt
Director | Ralph B. Peña
Set Design | Reid Thompson
Costume Design | Becky Bodurtha
Lighting Design | Oliver Wason
Sound Design | Kenneth Goodwin
Dramaturgy | John M. Baker

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