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Once Upon a (Korean) Time

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 31, 2022

Sasha Diamond, Sonnie Brown, and David Lee Huynh
Photo by Richard Termine
Long long ago when tigers used to smoke, the Ma-Yi Theatre Company commissioned a new work by actor and first-time playwright Daniel K. Isaac, recently seen onstage in Lloyd Suh's The Chinese Lady at the Public Theater. I mention the altogether excellent The Chinese Lady because it, too, was a Ma-Yi production, and its director, Ralph B. Peña, is likewise helming the premiere of Isaac's own play, a potent mix of Korean wartime history, traditional fables, and the human capacity to survive a traumatic legacy. It is called Once Upon a (Korean) Time, and it opens tonight in a gripping and imaginatively staged production at the La MaMa E.T.C. Ellen Stewart Theatre.

The 90-minute play is divided into a series of scenes that take us from the 1930s and the Japanese occupation of Korea through World War II, before crossing the Pacific to Los Angeles just in time for the riots of 1992. So brace yourself. Even with infusions of flippant humor and excursions into fantasy, it is the shock and awe of battle and its aftermath that reverberate.

Once Upon a (Korean) Time opens with two wartime scenes. In the first, a pair of soldiers (David Lee Huynh and Jon Norman Schneider) are huddled behind a bunker that provides a minimum of cover against a constant bombardment of artillery (realistically depicted through Fabian Obispo's sound design and Oliver Wason's lighting). Terrified, one of the men demands that the other comfort him by telling him a story, one of the tales that begins with the Korean version of once upon a time: "long long ago when tigers used to smoke."

This kind of storytelling, both recited and acted out, becomes a thread that runs throughout the play. It underscores the power of stories to soothe and provide a distraction, even in the worst of times. This is even more true in what is perhaps the most harrowing scene, one that takes place in a Japanese encampment. Here a group of Korean "Comfort Women" (Sasha Diamond, Teresa Avia Lim, and Jillian Sun) strive to draw a modicum of respite through the telling of a traditional tale, even as they wait to see which of them will be next to be pulled out at gunpoint to sexually serve one of the soldiers.

The play continues along this path, with the mythic gradually overtaking the realism, aided in no small part by Se Hyun Oh's abstract set design that incorporates a pair of monolithic stone walls, and Yee Eun Nam's often startling projections. This combination of naturalism and the realm of the imagination might remind you of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's dark fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, which also takes place during a time of war and trauma.

Time, too, becomes more malleable, and following the war scenes in Korea, we are whizzed rapidly through space, time and distance until we arrive at a convenience store in Los Angeles' Koreatown at the height of the 1992 riots. The owner (Sonnie Brown, a first-rate performer with an uncanny ability to straddle that fine line between reality and absurdity) is determined to hold down the fort despite the violence taking place all around. It is through Sonnie's own gradually revealed story (the characters are all referred to by the given names of the performers) that the disparate and seemingly unconnected snippets of history suddenly form a logical continuum.

The play concludes on a distinctly upbeat note that leaves us with a great appreciation for those who survived and for those who were lost along the way. Daniel K. Isaac has said his goal was to create something that was "unapologetically epic and explosively theatrical." With Once Upon a (Korean) Time, he has largely succeeded.

Once Upon a (Korean) Time
Through September 11, 2022
Ma-Yi Theater Company
La MaMa E.T.C. Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E 4th St, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: