Commissioned by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, Daniel K. Isaac’s brilliant ONCE UPON A (korean) TIME was born out of the actor-playwright’s realization that he knew way more about Shakespeare and the Western canon than his own rich Korean culture of folk tales and origin myths. He has fashioned, over the course of five scenes, beautifully layered storytelling in situations clouded by utter despair, without sacrificing great brushstrokes of humor.
In Earth, the first chapter, we are treated to The Story of the Brothers Heungbu & Nolbu as told by two soldiers trapped in a trench at the beginning of the Korean War. Unable to escape, with their provisions completely depleted, they pass the time roleplaying the characters of Heungbu and Nolbu while the bombing intensifies, finally exposing their trench. Daydreamings of their spouses become the stand-ins for Nolbu’s pregnant Betrothed and Heungbu’s imaginary Model Wife. As in most of these tales, the interaction of humans and animals as they coexist can be very telling – when Heungbu nurses a bird that has broken its wing, it returns healthy with the gift of a seed that bears calabashes laden with money and food that replenish every day; when Nolbu’s Betrothed instructs him to break the wing of a bird, they are rewarded with impoverishment.
In Water, the second chapter, we are witness to a “comfort station,” where we meet three Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. As Women 1 and 2 are alternately taken out to service the soldiers, they tell the story of The Blind Man’s Daughter: The Story of Shim Cheong, a girl who sacrifices herself so that her father might be able to see again. This mirrors the love that Woman 3 has for her own father – she wishes she could charge for her services so that she could send money home to her family. In her travels, the Sea King takes a liking to Shim Cheong and sends her back to land inside a lotus flower. The flower is taken to the emperor, and finding her inside, the emperor decides to make her his empress. She reunites with her father at a festival and it is then that their tears of joy restore the father’s sight.
In Heaven, the third chapter, we are in one of the caves that towns dug out of the hillsides to shelter during the air raid drills. In an attempt to keep young Cheong entertained, Tiger and Bear relate the tale of The Weaver Girl Jingnyeo and The Cowherder Gyeonu, a pair separated by the Spy King because they were so enamored of each other. So moved by their tears, magpies and ravens build a bridge across the Milky Way once a year, in an effort to bring the two lovers together. As the cave is destroyed, we see a tableau where Cheong matures and is joined in her escape from the cave by an American soldier…and then a baby. The baby gets “airlifted” into the heavens by the same set of magpies and ravens.
In Fire, the fourth chapter, we meet Cheong again, in Los Angeles in 1992. She now owns a liquor store/smoke shop in the midst of the rioting, meeting her young adult daughter Jillian for the first time. Cheong tells the tale of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, a variation on the theme of Little Red Riding Hood, with the big, bad wolf replaced by a tiger, all the while as Cheong’s store is pelted by firebombs. As in most fairy tales, the two heroines are “lifted into the heavens” and are saved.
In Storytellers, the fifth chapter, we meet all of the actors we have encountered through the play, now as friends gathering in a present day Koreatown BBQ restaurant. We have a gay couple who’ve just had a child, a lesbian couple who’ve been together a while, and a straight couple with no children. This scene is a denouement for the audience as much as it is for the actors. Things you may have missed are explained or clarified in the guise of these young friends sharing how much of their Korean heritage they have been exposed to, a Cliffs Notes for any moment you may have been distracted.
The ensemble cast is wonderful, with each performer showing up in a few of the chapters. Standouts are Jon Norman Schneider and David Lee Huynh as the heartbreaking soldiers in Earth, Teresa Avia Lim, Jillian Sun and Sasha Diamond as the three “comfort women,” Jon Norman Schneider as a hilariously camp Sea Dragon and David Shih as a tender Shim the Blind in Water, Sasha Diamond as the Bear, David Lee Huynh as the Tiger and Sonnie Brown as Cheong in Heaven, and Jillian Sun as Jillian and a haunting Sonnie Brown again in the role of Cheong in Fire.
The other stars of the show are the designers: Se Hyun Oh’s creative set pieces transforming a ditch into a comfort station into a cave into a liquor store into a restaurant so effortlessly, Phuong Nguyen’s stunning costumes, Oliver Wason’s atmospheric lighting, Fabian Obispo’s ambient and engaging sound design and Yee Eun Nam’s vibrant projection designs. Ralph B. Peña’s direction is embracing at all times, a gentle hand guiding the audience through an ingenious history lesson. Kudos to Daniel K. Isaac for a thoroughly entertaining and imaginative rollercoaster ride.
ONCE UPON A (korean) TIME (through September 18, 2022)
Ma-Yi Theater Company
La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ma-yitheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes without an intermission