Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Legally Blonde the Musical
Korean dramasK-dramas to their legion of fansare florid soap-opera like television series, with cresting dramatic arcs that seem to always end with lovers living happily ever after or one of them dying from cancer. They have grown in popularity around the world, becoming perhaps South Korea's leading cultural export. The titular K-drama addict is a Hmong-American woman, Gao Hlee, who works as a "personality coach" in the Twin Cities and is still a virgin as her 30th birthday approaches. As a woman who grew up in the United States, steeped in western culture, Gao Hlee seems embarrassed to remain a virgin at such an "advanced" age. She is anxious to change that, yet wants it to be in the context of a loving relationship. Gao Hlee calls K-dramas and frequent drinking her self-care program.
Recently, Gao has was hired by a Korean mega-corporation to tutor the callow heir to the company, Benedict Song, who is newly assigned to ensure the company's dominance in the American midwest. Benedict needs to learn American social customs and, more to the point, tone down his gruff demeanor to be in sync with colleagues and staff members accustomed to "Minnesota nice." He is rude and condescending toward Gao Hlee, barking demands without so much as a thank you, while she manages to remain cool and use each of his tirades as a teachable moment. Will these two opposites find a way to work together, possibly to like one another, and, who knows, maybe share a kiss or more? If you have to ask that question, you have never seen a romantic comedy.
Gao Hlee and Benedict have secrets that shake things up. She has reasons far beyond vanity to so desperately want to lose her virginity before turning thirty. He harbors unfulfilled dreams that were squashed by his status-obsessed Korean mother. These twists create a path for the two unlikely souls to come together. However, the play's constant switch from one tone to another makes it difficult to stay committed to the core narrative. One moment we have a wisecracker parody of a K-drama; now a somber moment has Gao Hlee's best friend and Benedict's loyal aide share confidences; enter a white American business man, a buffoon with racist notions and an overdone Texas drawl who reduces the scenes he is in to a cartoon; then one of two caricatured mothersGao Hlee's traditional Hmong mom, pushing her daughter to produce a grandchild, and Benedict's dragon lady Korean mother, reeking with the scent of ambitionmakes an appearance, their overstated bearings prompting laughter even as they reflect precepts of their respective cultures. It seems that playwright Lee-Yang wants to tell an important story, and also to be sure that the audience is entertained, but in pursuing the latter with such a vengeance, the narrative becomes diffuse and the whole enterprise diminished.
Theater Mu's Artistic Director Randy Reyes does significant heavy lifting directing the play, as he orchestrates transitions not only among scenes, but from one tone to another. With such an abundance of moving parts, he keeps everything running smoothly and brings out the best in each of those parts. The physical production is well conceived, starting with Sarah Brandner's set design, using simple white cube structures, and a bed that can be pushed out from behind a set of Asian carved screens, constantly reconfigured to form offices, bedrooms, restaurants and clubs, a hospital room, and, most ingeniously, automobiles. Matthew Vichlach, as sound designer, embellishes each scene with appropriate music and sharp sound effects, such as the slamming of unseen car doors and revving up of car engines. The costumes, designed by Samantha Fromm Haddow, provide just the right look for each character, with special props for the ensemble worn by Benedict's mother, Madame Song, that ensures her hard-as-nails status. Karin Olson's lighting helps greatly to convey the tone shifts during the course of the play.
The entire cast give excellent performances. Both Dexieng Yang, as Gao Hlee, and Brian Kim, as Benedict Song, begin the play as one-dimensional charactersshe obsessed with getting laid, he posturing as a heartless Korean boss. Over the course of the play, they each acquire added depth, drawing their pasts into their present, and we see the transformation in these characters as the catalyst that enables them to be drawn to one another, a staple of romantic comedies that both actors play out with finesse. Katie Bradley is hilariously brutal as Madame Song, and Phasoua Vang as Gao Hlee's mother is charming, albeit simple-minded, as she draws from the customs, humor, and survival instincts of her world. If Ms. Bradley and Ms. Vang appear as types rather than as genuine people, that is what their parts, as written, call for, and both actors fill the bill with brio.
Clay Man Soo is winningly innocent and earnest as Secretary Kim, Benedict's faithful but underappreciated aide who also suffers from harboring a secret, though he seems too young for it to be plausible that his character and Benedict were friends as youths in school together. Joann Oudekerk is impressive as the pragmatic Park Mirae, a girl from a wealthy Korean family whom Madame Song lines up as a blind date for Benedict, and Gregory Yang gives a convincing performance as Tou Mong, Gao Hlee's former boyfriend who continues to pursue her, despite her excellent reason for shunning him. As Gao Hlee's friend Z, Khadija Siddiqui serves mainly as a sounding board for other characters, but she plays the part well. Yeej Moua and Mai See Lee show their agility playing multiple roles in the ensemble.
I really liked The Korean Drama Addict's Guide to Losing Your Virginity. I laughed often, learned a few things about both Hmong and Korean cultures, and found myself grinning broadly at its happy ending. I was impressed by the performances and the work of the design team. Yet, I wish that I liked it more. With so much going on, the parts distract from the whole and the play feels disjointed, perhaps not fully finished. It is like a stylish piece of furniture that is whole but in need of sanding to smooth out its rough edges and tightening to make sure the seams are closely joined. But it is an attractive piece of furniture that, given those additional touches, can function as well as it looks.
That additional work might be needed in no way belittles the playwright's accomplishment in coming this far with a complicated, insightful, and truly original piece of work. This production completes Theater Mu's 26th season, and in those 26 years it has staged 54 world premieres. This is a striking contribution overall to the theatrical canon, and especially to depicting the lives and issues of Asian and Asian-American communities. By commissioning and staging The Korean Drama Addict's Guide to Losing Your Virginity, Theater Mu continues its role as an invaluable purveyor of inclusive theater that reflects more fully the joys, sorrows and mysteries abounding in our world.
The Korean Drama Addict's Guide to Losing Your Virginity, a Theater Mu production, through August 19, 2018, at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. All tickets are "pick your price" from $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 651-789-1012 or go to muperformingarts.org.
Writer: May Lee-Vang; Director: Randy Reyes; Set Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Matthew Vichlach; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Technical Director: Alex Olsen; Stage Manager: Lyndsey Harter; Assistant Stage Managers: Kivan Kirk.
Cast: Katie Bradley (Madame Song), Brian Kim (Benedict), Mai See Lee (ensemble), Yeej Moua (ensemble), Joann Oudekerk (Park Mirae), Khadija Siddiqui (Z), Clay Man Soo (Secretary Kim), Phasoua Vang (Mom), Dexieng Yang (Gao Hlee), Gregory Yang (Tou Mong).