Wild Goose Dreams, now premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse, is an ultimately engaging play set in contemporary Korea which doesn’t actually deliver much nourishment but certainly hops about energetically trying.
These days, the divided Korea certainly has our attention, and playwright Hansol Jung seems willing and even anxious to explain the vast differences between the two worlds. Everywhere, not just on that embattled peninsula, basic communication realities in all their staggering complexity seem out of control and nearly insurmountable. Two lonely people can still meet, find their own bliss and radiate the magic of that ancient formula.
All this happening at once, though, is overwhelming, even with a clever director (Leigh Silverman) and a tightly wound, versatile company of actors.
Before Jung and Silverman get the piece sorted out and into coherence, the cacophony clashes violently with the quiet charm of the opening moments, when veteran actor Francis Jue spreads out the folktale which will serve as a rack for displaying this arsenal of complicated narrative techniques.
The girl, having survived a swimming escape from North Korea, is a service employee in a sea of Seoul cubicles. The boy is some kind of deskbound techie in similar confines, forwarding most of his pay to the USA where his wife has taken the children for their advancement. (Thus the “wild goose” tag: He flies in for a visit only occasionally.)
She tries to send money home to her family too, but the smuggling connection seems ragged at best. A moment of stolen cell-phone connection may be just her imagination. Obviously, things go hard for families of escapees.
The two connect through a dreary/cheery on-line dating service. Something actually clicks. Sweet people meeting cute always charms. Do they have a chance despite his distant family and her nightmares?
Suffice it to say theirs is a chaotic, perilous world where bittersweet is about the best one can hope for.
Details of this world are lost in a mush of atmosphere. South of the border, all is cell phones and karaoke and comic books and motels and plastic surgery. In the north are hard-edged propaganda banners, sinister figures with red-light eyes and big clubs and sad acknowledgement that even lovers can betray each other for improper musings. A good time is watching the colored lights on the fountains by the river.
Little here to increase understanding. The digital din tends to squash any tendril of insight.
Author and director have devised a fertile updating of the Greek chorus: a squad of intense spectators available to comment or participate as needed. But, augmented by the muscular a cappella lines of composer Paul Castles, the idea has swerved from serving content to decorating form. The well-drilled septet becomes an aural landscape of visual info: e-mail, tweets, Instagram, Facebook, texts, LinkedIn, whatever, trickling through the play like wild rivers overflown.
This really is invigorating but to what end? This information we’re all used to has developed as a controlled creature of the electronic screen, not a broadcast of sounds. We cut through the former by habit but the latter can dull us, blocking any other input.
Just as it seemed, however, that we spectators were in for a trying stretch of overwhelming banality, the racket faded, came under control and romance, more or less, took over. Thereafter, the distractions were mostly ghosts, pop songwriting and metaphor. Lots of metaphor. Like the penguin in the toilet bowl.
Conclusion? Korea is a mess we haven’t seen the end of. And Fate is cruelly disinterested.
Jung’s dialogue is serviceable at best but she has an instinct for spotting the telltale detail and finding the clue to follow. Silverman has all kinds of tricks available and knows well how to integrate exotic flavoring from Korean co-composer Jongbin Jung and choreographer Yasmine Lee. Indeed, for my tastes, Silverman is more clever here than is necessary.
Yunjin Kim makes this woman a fragile, intriguing, wide-eyed survivor, probably doomed but unlikely to default. Though less admirable as the guy, James Kyson gradually works his way to a similar appeal. They don’t seem particularly well matched – a mutual edge of desperation gleams – but they each feed on the other’s solemn commitment.
Francis Jue never loses the patina he earned in that opening tale and, despite some vagueness in his role, bestows an aura of cultural calm over all.
Wilson Chin’s set is pleasingly grounded on the solid polished planks most of us associate with Asian theatre and Linda Cho’s costumes are an appropriate blend. Keith Parham finds all the lighting opportunities that I noticed without overwhelming anything.
For the record, the members of the excellent chorus are Carolyn Agan, Julian Cihi, DeLeon Dallas, Rona Figeroa, Kyle Hester, Kimberly Monks and Samantha Wang.
(Continues in the UCSD Mandell Weiss Forum at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 7 p.m. Sundays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 1, 2017.)