Once Upon a (Korean) Time Review. Grim Korean folk tales and history from Daniel K Isaac

In the Korean version of Cinderella, the evil stepmother kills Cinderella and throws her into the river.

But that’s not the end: Cinderella magically comes back to life and, with the help of the Prince, kills her stepsister and feeds her as soup to the evil stepmother.

Friends tell each other this story at a Korean BBQ restaurant in New York during a get-together that one of them perhaps jokingly calls a meeting of The Adopted Korean Americans Support Group. This is the last of the five chapters of “Once Upon A (Korean) Time,” Daniel K. Isaac’s remarkable playwriting debut, in which different Korean characters over the course of a century tell each other folk tales, sometimes (as the Cinderella story) in amusement, most times in desperation. By the end, we in the audience long have come to an inescapable conclusion:  Korean folk tales may be grim, but they are no more traumatic than Korean history.

Isaac, an established actor (The Chinese Lady, The Gentleman Caller, Ben Kim in the Showtime series Billions),  has created a showcase for a talented cast of seven to portray two types of characters simultaneously. They are everyday Korean people caught up in large tragedies over the years, whether war with Japan or riots in L.A. They are also the mythological (sometimes non-human) characters from Korean folk tales.

The specific moments in history and the individual fables are cleverly paired so that they implicitly reflect and comment on one another. Those current-day Korean-American diners telling the Cinderella fable, for example, share with her the experience of displacement and a reconfigured family. 

At the beginning of each of the five chapters, a projection provides a title, the time and place of the scene, and the Korean fable that the characters wind up telling each other. 

 “Earth”: Teresa Avia Lim, David Shih (in projection), Jon Norman Schneider, David Lee Huynh

The first chapter, “Earth” (“Korean Peninsula, 1930, The Brothers Heungbu and Nolbu”)
is set during the fight for independence against Japan. Two soldiers in the trenches tell each other the fable of the two brothers, in order to distract each other from their pain and their hunger; one of the soldiers is severely injured, and both are without food or water. Nolbu, a cruel and arrogant rich man, refuses to help his impoverished younger brother, Heungbu, a kind and humble man whose family is hungry. Nolbu won’t even acknowledge that they’re brothers.  In the elaborate, supernatural events that follow – which involve a magical girl, a magical old man, a jeh-bee (sparrow) with a magical seed, which, when sprouted produces magical calabashes, etc.  — Heungbu is rewarded with riches many times over, while Nolbu receives a devastating comeuppance. 
 As in the scenes to follow, the two soldiers act out the tale while they tell it, assuming the roles of the brothers, while actresses appear to portray the wives of the soldiers (real or imagined) as well as of the brothers.
Traditionally, the Brothers Heungbu and Noble (as we learn from a reprint of the tale in the program) ends with Nolbu and his wife, now completely broke, realizing the error of their ways, and seeking forgiveness from Heungbu, who grants it. But the soldiers don’t make it to the happy ending.

“Water” Sasha Diamond, Teresa Avia Lim, Jillian Sun

“Water,” (“Comfort Station, Korean Peninsula, 1943.The Blind Man’s Daughter”) takes place in a camp for “comfort women” – sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers — during World War II. They share the tale of  Shim Cheong, whose blind father pledges that he will give 300 sacks of rice to a monk, who promises to restore his sight. In Isaac’s version, the monk strikes me as a con man and Shim’s blind father a fool. Yet, in order to raise the money to buy the rice,  she sells herself to sea merchants so they can sacrifice a virgin to the Sea King and thus ensure safe passage for their ships. Shim’s story grows ever more fantastic, leading to a colorful musical number. Meanwhile the comfort women’s situation grows ever more despairing.
“Tell me how our story ends,” one of the women asks the other, and she means their own, not Shim’s.
“We survive this horror, somehow. This war ends and Japan denies this ever happening.”

“Heaven.” Sasha Diamond, Sonnie Brown as Cheong, David Lee Huynh

“Heaven” (“A Cave in South Korea, 1952. The Weaver and The Herdsman”) takes place during the Korean War, when Cheong (the daughter of one of the comfort women) is hiding in a cave, with planes roaring overhead. when a bear and a tiger tell a tale that begins “Long long ago when tigers used to smoke”
“I still smoke,” the tiger interjects, part of a kind of Abbott and Costello routine between the two large mammals. The bear tells the tale of Weaver Woman and Cow Herder who fell in love, so  much so that they stopped attending to their work, which annoyed the woman’s father, the Sky King, who banished them to live separately on “cliffs far far away.”
“Like how far we are from home?” Cheong asks

“Fire” Sonnie Brown, Jillian Sun

I began watching the play assuming the scenes and tales were random, but soon understood that they followed a historical timeline. It took longer for me to see these were all chapters in the life of a single family, albeit a fractured one. This becomes unmistakable in “Fire” (“Los Angeles, 1992, Grandma and Tiger”), which takes place in a grocery store owned by Cheong in Koreatown during the L.A. riots, which targeted Korean grocery stores. 

This and the final chapter tie the play together in unexpected ways (which I won’t spoil.)

K-Town, present day: Sasha Diamond, David Lee Huynh, Jon Norman Schneider, Teresa Avia Lim, Jillian Sun, David Shih

There are moments in “Once Upon A (Korean) Time” that might have been more easily understood if the storyteller could have just told the folk tale, without having to act it out as well. It’s a clever conceit, but it would have been less confusing to have a different person act out the tale. Those theatergoers without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Korean and Korean-American history might at times feel left out. There is little in the play itself, other than the projected titles, that informs us about the historical context. There is also the occasional word in the Korean language, although their meaning is often clear enough. But “Once Upon a (Korean) Times” also demonstrates the apparent clearheadedness of its author, as well as his thoughtfulness, sometime irreverence and vulnerability. (Daniel K. Isaac wrote a program note that is worth quoting in full, although you might want to wait to read it until after you see his play. See below.) And under the direction of Ralph B. Peña, artistic director of Ma-Yi, with the immeasurable assistance of the actors and the designers, the production manages to accomplish something close to what the best folk tales do — turn the frightening and ugly aspects of the world into something sublime.

Once Upon A (Korean) Time
Ma-Yi Theater at LaMaMa through September 18
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $68 to $88
Written by Daniel K. Isaac
Directed by Ralph B. Peña
Scenic design by Se Hyun Oh, lighting design by Oliver Wason, costume design by Phương Nguyễn, sound design by Fabian Obispo, projection design by Yee Eun Nam
Cast: Sonnie Brown, Sasha Diamond, David Lee Huynh, Teresa Avia Lim, Jon Norman Schneider, David Shih, and Jillian Sun.

Photos by Richard Termine

Daniel K. Isaac program note:

“I began with a question:Why am I more well-versed in Greek and Roman mythology, Shakespeare,the Brothers Grimm, American history, Chekhov, Marvel, European history,Disney, and and and… than Korean origin myths, Korean folk tales, Korean folkmusic, Korean history, and and and?

For context:I am an only child of a Korean immigrant single parent. I do not know my biological father or his side of the family or their history.My maternal grandparents passed before I was born.And my mother rarely talked about her difficult chapters in Korea other than,Finish every kernel of rice! Do you know how many people were starving when I was growing up?!

When I first started investigating this play, I called my mother with an idea:What if two soldiers told the story of Heung-bu Nol-bu while stuck in a trench? She then offered, What if Comfort Women told the story of Shim-Cheong?(This was the first time she’d ever talked about Comfort Women.)Thus, Chapters I and II were born.

 Chapter III is also inspired by my mother. When I was in the fifth grade, I remember being assigned a drawing of a family tree as a homework assignment.The teacher had not encountered a student of divorced immigrants who’d lost much of their family and history in the various wars of Korea… so she eventually modified the assignment to be an interview of my mother and a drawing based on the interview. This would be the first time my mother shared her memories of fleeing south during the Korean War. How her town had dug a hole in the hillside to hide in during the air raids…

Chapter IV is in honor of my late aunt, Hyo Man Lee, who had a liquor store in Los Angeles for the majority of her life.Though the story within comes from a long car ride with my mother where,instead of bickering or fighting, she recited her version of the story of The Grandma and The Tiger.

For further context:I have been disowned multiple times for being gay.
For a period of time, another family adopted me.
But they also distanced themselves when I came out
.So the notion of “family” is complicated for me

And communicating with my mother can be like navigating a minefield.

Throughout all of this, theatre has been my home. My refuge. My safe space. My family. So I am honored to write for the theatre.To share these stories.And I could not be more grateful to Ralph B. Peña and Ma-Yi Theater Company for giving this play a home.I am constantly in awe that all of these folx came together to make this impossible play come to life.

And I am in a perpetual state of gratitude that you have decided to join us on this journey.

I dedicate this play to my mother who remains staunchly anti-vaccinations and cannot see this production.And I dedicate this play to maybe a future child or two.

And finally, I dedicate this play to my chosen family.

Thank you for joining us at the sacred space of theatre. One of the actors summarized this play as, A queer fantastical purging of intergenerational trauma.Thank you for being part of that journey.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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