Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Murder on the Orient Express
This brief review of history is an important context for Muyehpen, a new play by Karen actor and writer Ehkhudah Zar and produced by Exposed Brick Theatre, and historic significance of this play's very existence. The Karen literary tradition has been one of oral storytelling. Muyehpen is the heroic central character of one such story, a legend passed down through generations, which Zar herself first heard as a child in a Karen refugee camp. It is Zar's aim to set the story down on paper and bring it to life in dramatic form so that it survives in the Karen diaspora. Muyehpen is the first play by a Karen playwright in Minnesota and, as far as is known, anywhere in the world.
Muyehpen draws on Karen history and folklore. The play is set nine generations ago, with scenes pivoting between the Karen lands and their neighbor to the east, Siam (now Thailand). At the start, King Rama III of Siam orders the execution of a Karen rebel leader who pronounces a curse on Siam if they ever again act against the Karen people. At a later time, a Karen woman, Nyet, and her cousin Kwamu are picking cotton in the fields when a storm breaks out and the women are struck by lightning. Soon afterward, both discover they are pregnant, even though are beyond child-bearing age. Nyet gives birth to a daughter, who is named Muyehpen, while Kwamu gives birth to a boy, Saw Lah.
More time passes. Muyehpen and Saw Lah are on the cusp of adulthood, each devoted to the other. The setting shifts back to Siam, now ruled by Rama V. Hard times have set upon Siam and a witch tells the King that to make things better for his people, he must find the most beautiful girl in the land, bring her to his palace, and make of her a sacrifice. "Where will I find this girl?" the King asks. As you may have guessed, she will be found in the Karen lands and the girl will be Muyehpen.
The play continues with Muyehpen's capture by the king's commander, her rescue by gallant Saw Lah after proving himself by accomplishing a series of absurdly challenging tasks, her return to the king (ordained by Karen custom when Saw Lah realizes that during her captivity she lost her "purity"), and the king's failure to sacrifice Muyehpen as the witch instructed, in spite of her making every effort to defy him. When finally faced with death, Muyehpen implores the king to call in her Karen uncles and insists they form a treaty vowing that the Siamese will never again wage war against the Karen and requiring the Siamese to provide shelter and succor to the Karen should they suffer a time of need.
Muyehpen is a long saga, and so is this play, running nearly two and a half hours and packed with numerous plot complications. In the oral tradition, elaborate plot detours and cul-de-sacs can be a pleasure, delivered one episode at a time over numerous fireside or bedtime sessions. On stage, though, so much narrative embroidery detracts from the effort to follow the main thrust and themes of the story. This may be especially so for those who arrive having no familiarity with the Karen legends. It is understandable that every step in the journey of Muyehpen is precious within its culture and deserves to be heard–but the desire to retain it in its entirety works against good dramatic movement. The play also suffers in places from shifts in language, at some junctures using formal, traditional language, such as to issue a decree or describe a cultural practice, only to throw in modern phrases like "You don't get it," or a desultory "Whatever!"
That said, Eliza Rasheed's direction works well to enliven each scene, drawing the focus where it needs to be, keeping all characters on stage engaged, and making smooth transitions between scenes. An element that works very well in Muyehpen is the use of shadow puppets to depict several scenes, in particular three incidents of childbirth and a couple of scenes containing brutal violence. Noel Ibss and Isabella Freeland worked with Rasheed on the shadow puppet designs. These are presented behind a screen with the appearance of weathered rice paper so that it fits holistically into the evocative set, designed by Alice Endo, which changes from a lush, rural setting in Act I to the formally ornate interior of the king's palace in Act II. Ash Kaun's costumes are beautiful representations of traditional Karen apparel that mark the differing status among the characters, from peasants to king.
The cast, which includes members of the Karen community, has varied degrees of experience, with some making their first public performances, but all show a commitment to the story and their part in it. The most accomplished performance comes from the playwright, Ehkhudah Zar, as Muyehpen. Zar clearly feels a passionate connection to her character, portraying a wide range of emotions while always maintaining a resilient dignity. Andrew Lee is excellent as Saw Lah, showing us the arc in this young man's growth, from a boy smitten with puppy love, to a valiant protector who faces any challenge for his love, to a mature man who accepts the dictates of his people's beliefs, even as his heart is broken. Also making strong impressions are Jenny Tam as the witch, Juanita Sayaovong Vang as Nyet, Song Kim as King Rama V, and Viet Nguyen as the king's commander.
The play includes attitudes patently unacceptable in today's Western culture, such as Muyehpen's "admission of her wrongs" when Saw Lah questions her about intimate contact between her and the commander while she was held at his camp–even though that contact is clearly forced upon her. It bears remembering that her statement is made in a cultural and historic context that cannot be erased just because we do not today tolerate blaming a victim of sexual assault. Part of understanding the culture of a people in today's world is to recognize the historic antecedents of that culture.
In the Karen homeland, Muyehpen is honored as a heroic figure whose strength and sharp mind enabled her to turn the sacrifice for which she was destined into a means of bringing peace to her people. Sadly, history has shown that the Karen have not had a great deal of peace under the Burmese, and those who fled to become refugees in Thailand were tolerated, but in carefully guarded refugee camps, hardly the shelter and succor implied by the treaty that was Muyehpen's legacy. Nonetheless, she is held up as a symbol of powerful Karen womanhood, and maintaining her story is an important element of passing Karen culture on to future generations. For those of us unfamiliar with the Karen, it is a way of understanding the struggles and aspirations of a people from halfway around the world who have become our new neighbors. These are among the best reasons I can think of for making theatre works such as Muyehpen. Exposed Brick has worked closely and honorably with the Karen community to bring this historic event to fruition.
Muyehpen, produced by Exposed Brick Theatre, runs through May 27, 2023, at The Historic Mounds Theatre, 1029 Hudson Road, Saint Paul MN. Ticket: free to $22. For tickets and information, please visit go to exposedbricktheatre.com.
Playwright: Ehkhudah Zar; Director: Eliza Rasheed; Set Design: Alice Endo; Costume Design: Ash Kaun; ; Lighting Design: Mitchell Frazier; Assistant Lighting Designer: Lauren Lochen; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Assistant Sound Designer: Yuhen Jiang (Kitty); Shadow Puppet Design: Noel Ibss, Isabella Freeland, Eliza Rasheed; Intimacy Director: Alessandra Bongiardina; Fight Choreography: The Fake Fighting Company; Dramaturg: Suzy Messerole; Stage Manager: MJ Luna; Assistant Stage Z
Cast: Zachary Benson (Rama III/Minister/Solider), Mookopaw Kasuh (Villager/Friend/Servant/Uncle), Psawpaw Kasuh (Kwamu/Servant), Song Kim (Saw Thawma/Rama V), Thant Arkar Kyaw (Minister/Solider), Andrew Lee (Saw Lah/Uncle), Viet Nguyen (Kosi/Commander), Jenny Tam (Villager/Witch/Friend), Mai Moua Thao (Villager/Friend/ Wife), Juanita Sayaovong Vang (Nyet/Uncle), Ehkhudah Zar (Muyehpen)