'Wild Goose Dreams': Theater Review
A married South Korean man and a North Korean female defector enter into an ill-fated relationship in Hansol Jung's surreal play, a co-production of New York's Public Theater and La Jolla Playhouse.
Many of us turn to the internet for solace and communication when lonely. It's an instant and convenient way to attempt to forge personal communications, albeit of the technologically removed kind. The new play by Hansol Jung, having its New York premiere at the Public Theater, gives that phenomenon a dramatization with a timely international twist. Depicting the awkward courtship between a South Korean man and a North Korean female defector, Wild Goose Dreams offers a flavorful if wildly overcluttered portrait of star-crossed romance.
The title refers to Minsung (Peter Kim), a so-called "goose father" because he's sent his wife (Jaygee Macapugay) and young daughter (Kendyl Ito) to America in search of a better life. Supporting his family financially while living alone back home, Minsung becomes increasingly lonely and despondent as the years roll on. He turns to an online dating service, where he meets Nanhee (Michelle Krusiec). She defected from North Korea years earlier and remains haunted by thoughts of the father (Francis Jue) she left behind.
The father haunts the play as well, introducing the proceedings and showing up periodically to communicate with his daughter and acerbically comment on what's transpiring.
Nanhee is initially reluctant to meet Minsung, who confesses his marital status when they first communicate online. They agree to a karaoke bar date as "friends," but the relationship between the two lonely, sex-starved people quickly becomes physical. The romance is not without its problems. Minsung, still pining for his family, constantly checks for emails, text messages and Facebook notifications, and Nanhee becomes discomfited when the specter of her father disappears from her mind after she first sleeps with Minsung.
"My mind is no longer broken," she tells Minsung before initiating another sexual encounter. "I want it to be broken again."
The simple tale, which eventually ends in tragedy, is quietly touching in its tender depiction of the two emotionally fragile souls. Unfortunately, the playwright overwhelms her slight story with overelaborate theatrical gimmickry. A Greek chorus of sorts constantly intrudes on the action, chanting and singing vocal equivalents to cellphone ringing, emojis and various internet functions, to distracting and quickly annoying effect. They don sparkly gold uniforms and perform a musical number to signify the main characters having sex, also appearing as a military marching band. Add to that the play's frequently surreal elements, such as when Nanhee imagines a penguin sticking its head out of a toilet, and the preciousness starts to become intolerable.
There's not enough meat on the play's bones to withstand all the theatrical affectations; the characters and storyline become subsumed long before the evening's conclusion. It doesn't help that lead actors Kim and Krusiec have a tendency to underplay, which would have worked fine in a subtler production but here gets lost amid the cacophony. On the other hand, distinguished veteran actor Jue is so commanding in his peripheral role that he immediately compels attention whenever he's on stage.
Director Leigh Silverman efficiently coordinates the heavy traffic of this Public Theater/La Jolla Playhouse co-production. And it certainly looks terrific. Clint Ramos' two-level set includes a catwalk dividing the audience and the theater's walls, featuring neon signs, large drawings and photographs conveying the tumult of the play's Seoul, South Korea, setting.
Wild Goose Dreams earns points for its exotic take on a familiar narrative and for introducing Western audiences to aspects of Korean life with which they might not be familiar. It's a shame, then, that its quiet charms are too indecipherable amid the internet babble.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Don Domingues, Lulu Fall, Kendyl Ito, Francis Jue, Peter Kim, Michelle Krusiec, Jaygee Macapugay, Joel Perez, Jamar Williams, Katrina Yaukey
Playwright: Hansol Jung
Director: Leigh Silverman
Set designer: Clint Ramos
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Keith Parham
Music: Paul Castles
Korean music: Jongbin Jung
Sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Presented by The Public Theater, La Jolla Playhouse