Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
When the hospital sends Ray's father home, saying they can do no more for him, Ray leaves both his job as a chef and his girlfriend Cornelia to be with his father. His father is barely aware of Ray's presence, only occasionally becoming conscious and uttering a few words. Lucien, an African refugee who saw death firsthand in his homeland, is well suited to his role of comforting those who are dying and preparing their loved ones for this inevitable end. The aubergine is a gift Lucien brings to Raya large, shiny, black eggplant, not the small, multi-colored variety Lucien so loved back in Africabut still, Lucien says, it is a magnificent vegetable.
Lucien encourages Ray to contact his father's only other living relative, an estranged brother who has never left Korea and speaks no English. Ray, who speaks no Korean, reaches out to Cornelia, who is fluent in Korean, to call his uncle and explain that his father is dying. To Ray's astonishment, his uncle shows up at their home with Korean remedies he believes will save Ray's father, notably a special Korean soup that Ray is to prepare. This chafes at Ray. As a fine chef, Ray yearned to win his father's regard by preparing exquisite meals for him, but his father preferred the simplest fareramen from a boxto culinary pearls, and held a dim view of Ray's vocation. In fact, since his mother died when he was quite young, Ray has tried in vain to win his father's approval. Now, his father cannot eat at allhe can barely breathand Ray is expected to prepare and serve him an exotic, life-saving soup.
In a prologue before Ray's story begins, a woman enters and delivers a monologue in which she describes the life she and her husband were privileged to enjoy as "food tourists," travelling around the world to seek out the latest splendid restaurant discovered by the international gourmand community. At the end, she peels back those experiences to reveal her most profound food-memory: a very basic, homey meal that she associates with a deeply felt love. Throughout Aubergine, Cho's characters ascribe emotional value to the flavors and textures of foods that are etched in their sensory memory. An epilogue tacked on to the end of the play brings this concept full circle.
Cho packs a lot into Aubergine. The theme of associations among food, memory, and emotions runs clearly through the two-act play, but she also addresses the cultural divide between immigrant parents and born-in-the-U.S.A. children, and the universal struggle of children seeking their parents' approval for charting lives their parents would never have chosen for them. She also addresses how death is experienced, both by the dying and by their loved ones, speculations marked with a stamp of authenticity borne of Lucien's experience and insights. Cho manages to deliver a good many thoughtful ideas in Aubergine, but it does at times flex from one theme to another so quickly as to diminish the weight of any one of those themes. Fortunately, she has a gift for dialogue that is witty and authentic, which carry her themes a good distance.
This is the first directorial stint at Park Square for Flordelino Lagundino, who came on board a year ago as Park Square's artistic director. The play poses challenges, such as the movement back and forth in time, and from one theme to another, sometimes without clear segues. Lagundino has provided as smooth a passage among these elements as one might imagine. He keeps the play moving swiftly, drawing out both the emotional content and the warm humor that runs through it.
Except for the prologue and epilogue that bookend the play, the core of the narrative is Ray's journey. Kurt Kwan has done good work on many Twin Cities stages over the past five years, but his performance as Ray ranks as his finest, strongest work yet. Kwan brings to life the discomforting blend of loss, anger, grief, self-doubt, longing and love that Ray experiences in the course of the play, creating a character that is a very real person, with personal flaws and gifts that he must learn to reconcile.
Sun Mee Chomet gives a strong performance as Cornelia. With peroxided hair, she appears fully cut off from her traditional Korean roots, yet she is the one who draws on those roots to help Ray navigate between the worlds of his father, his uncle, and himself. She is a bright, assertive American woman, but her tone collapses into a little-girl, obedient daughter/niece when she switches from speaking English with Ray to Korean with Ray's unclewonderful attention to character and context.
Song Kim is delightful as Ray's uncle, playing an innocent abroad as a Korean suddenly inserted into American life. He is absolutely hilarious pantomiming for Ray's benefit his trip from Korea to Ray's father's home, and gives a beautiful soliloquy describing his mother's cookingless impactful for being delivered fully in Korean. As Ray's father, Glenn Kubota has little to do for most of the play, making a scene in which he delivers a powerful message all the more potent. Darrick Mosely is winning as Lucien, expressing the caregiver's kindness and wisdom. Shanan Custer, a gifted comedienne, delivers the opening monologue, bringing out the humor, warmth, and mystery imbedded within.
The set designed by Deb O is extremely simple, with a rolling kitchen counter, a table and chairs, and a hospital bed creating the various locations. Projections behind the stage are intended to embellish the settings, but from our seats mid-row on the right side of the house in the Andy Boss Thrust Theater, those were difficult to see. Costumes, lighting, and sound design are all well suited to the play's needs. The first act has quite a few very short scenes, and between each scene a musical cue is played, which to my ear was jarring and discomfiting. A gentler tone might ease the transitions; on the other hand, in a play where death is imminent, perhaps the intent is to indicate the harshness of transitions.
Do the words we use to name the experiences of our lives matter? Is the sensory memory of eating an aubergine better than that of eating an eggplant? I am not sure that case is ever made. Aubergine does convey the importance of our sensory memories, whatever we name them, to link us to how we felt at key moments in our past. The play further illustrates the intersection between those memories and their cultural context. With its appealing characters, sharp wit, openly expressed feelings, and a strong cast, this Park Square production leaves a lingering good taste.
Aubergine runs through October 20, 2019, at Park Square Theatre, Boss Thrust Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $40.00 to 55.00; age 30 and under, $21.00; students and educators, $16.00 ; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. Rush tickets one hour before performance, subject to availability, are $20.00. For tickets and information, call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org.
Playwright: Julia Cho; Director: Flordelino Lagundino; Set Design: Deb O; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Matt Otto; Properties Design: Kenji Shoemaker; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Vocal Coach: Foster Johns; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhodes; Assistant Stage Manager: Kenji Shoemaker; Park Square Theatre Directing Fellow: Lindsey Samples; Park Square Theatre Sound Design Fellow: Akiem Scott; Park Square Theatre Video Design Fellow: Maxwell Collyard; Cultural Consultants: Richard Lee and Edwige Mubonzi; Korean Language Consultant: Bomi Yoon; Hospice Advisor: Angie Haigh; Korean Translation: Hansol Jung.
Cast: Sun Mee Chomet (Cornelia), Shanan Custer: (Diana); Song Kim (Uncle), Glenn Kubota (Ray's Father), Kurt Kwan (Ray), Darrick Mosley (Lucien).