Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Hannah and the Dread Gazebo": Day 9, Play 11, Theatre Eddys at OSF Ashland 2017

Hannah and the Dread Gazebo
Jiehae Park

“This is a story about a wish.”  But does this story really have a beginning, a middle, and an end?  Should it?  Must it?  Or is this a story where we simply accept and enjoy that there is something about a stone in a bottle, about a tiger and a bear, about magpies and garlic, and about a family searching for a grandmother who jumps wearing a big smile off the top floor of her retirement high rise into the mine-ridden DMZ separating the Koreas?  If we as audience can suspend our disbelief and live for a while in a zone that is neither here nor there, neither totally reality nor totally fantasy, and neither 100% Korean nor 100% American, then there is much to be absorbed, relished, and learned in experiencing the world premiere of Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo at the 2017 Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Maybe the story begins in New York City when a FedEx box addressed to Hannah drops from the sky (literally) with a note from her Korean grandmother saying she is about to commit suicide and with a smooth, white stone in a tiny bottle — a note saying that the stone is “a wish.”  Hannah, who is only two weeks from taking her boards to become a pediatric neurologist, rushes to Seoul where her brother has already arrived at their parents’ apartment.  To say that the family has some issues in communicating at any level genuine, even in this time of crisis, is an understatement.   Because of increased tensions between the two Koreas, recovering any information — much less a body — of the grandmother is impossible, leaving the family in a kind of purgatory and in their own version of a family demilitarized zone.  

In their own ways, each sets out to figure out how to “keep going,” how to do more than “just sit here.”  A mother orders a much-desired gazebo from, even though she and her husband live in an apartment.  A son rides the city’s trains as far as they can go and encounters a man in a trench coat lined with garlic and with a story about the beginning of time.  The father frantically rides his bicycle through the crowded Seoul streets, searching how he can to help his wife and the state of coma she suddenly finds herself in.  And a daughter takes the little stone to the top of the residential tower where her grandmother allegedly jumped, trying to discover what the wish is all about and why it came to her.  Each is trying to understand the story of their individual and collective lives as immigrants and as the next generation who are no longer immigrants.  Each is learning how to ask the right questions and/or to share sought answers so that all have the shared information needed to continue their own and their family’s stories.

And all along the way, what seems so serious begins to appear at least a little bit funny.  Certainly as an audience, we cannot help chuckling or downright laughing even as topics like suicide, coma, relationship break-up, or disconnect with one’s heritage and ancestry are the points of focus.  The power of Jiehae Park’s script and of this initial production’s magical direction by Clay Yew is that we as an audience get comfortable existing ourselves somewhere between serious and light-hearted, between needing to understand and just letting it happen, and between a period and an ellipsis at the end of the sentence.

The strong ensemble assembled to tell this story of sorts does so through individually defined manners, paces, and paths that sometimes converge but often occur in spaces apart from the others.  The fantastically designed lighting of David Weimer sets apart individuals on their quests to complete their version of the story and adds elements of mystery, fantasy, and surprise in the telling.  The scenic design of Collette Pollard begins so simply in high, simple style but opens up over time to reveal another world sensational and mystifying, beautiful and captivating.  Sara Ryun Clement’s costumes help define the personality of each character while also adding elements of humor and fantasy in just the right places.

Cindy Inn as Hannah, our narrator, is ever the serious doctor-to-be who approaches her job to discover what happened to her grandmother and why in a methodical manner … that is until she begins to open up to some possibilities that cannot be explained in facts and direct experience.  Her twenty-something brother, Dang (Sean Jones) is as American as they come in his generous use of the vernacular; in his torn, tight jeans; and in his feeling totally foreign and uneasy in a land where everyone looks exactly like he.  Mr. Jones’ Dang transforms in ways and for reasons wonderful to watch — partly due to a socially inept but magnetically attractive girl (Eunice Hong) whose non-stop sentences full of intellect and activism catch him off-guard and wake him up to something new in himself.

Paul Juhn is a smiling Father usually of few words beyond the predictable phrases his kids are used to hearing but one who can also explode unpredictably as his anxiety grows of not understanding what is happening and why to his distraught wife who has lost her mother.  He too begins to discover his own route to feeling more in control of the story developing around him and what he can do perhaps to help his dear wife’s state of deep grief.  

As the mother, Any Kim Waschke portrays with great skill and sensitivity the most complex of the core family’s characters.  Her transformation is entrancing to behold as she goes from almost a walking corpse in the beginning to a woman who finally understands the story she should share with her daughter, the next generation of the women in her family.  

Jessica Ko takes on many quirky, funny, and colorful characters — both those of  actuality and those of dreams and tales.  Her quick changes of persona, looks, voice, sex, and even species are much of the joy of this part-real, part-fable play. 
Ms. Ko’s ongoing appearances as Grandmother are a needed thread to remind us that this story does have a beginning in search of some ending.  That ending does come after only ninety minutes of Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo and leaves a lot of room for more new beginnings for each of the four members of this family of first-and-second generation, Korean immigrants.

Rating: 4 E

Photo by Jenny Graham

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