Theater Review|"Coming of Age in Korea"
The stage is set at the Castillo Theatre with a haphazard, industrial façade constructed of putty-colored planks of wood and sheet metal nailed against a stark purple wall. Various white Hangul are stenciled across the backdrop with the year, 1954, prominently displayed at the center of the proscenium. Amidst this cold, rustic stage, quite discordantly, is a large movie screen. That’s where the trouble began.
“Coming of Age in Korea” follows the life and times of three outcast soldiers in the Korean war, one Jewish, one Black, and one Hispanic, who are singled out by their colonel not only for their respective races, but because they have not yet contracted Chlamydia or any other venereal disease from a Korean prostitute like the other soldiers have already.
The story is told in this production of the 1996 Fred Newman musical through the tense combination of live performers and film sequences; the main plot is expelled in shaky, home-movie quality shots of the character’s experiences in the Korean War, while their internal conflicts are presented live through song and interpretive dance. Testing the limits of how the two media play off of each other, the audience experiences a frustrating disconnectedness from the start as we view a 40th reunion of the characters on screen, and then on stage given a retro pastiche musical number concerning pop culture in the 50’s, which seems to lead us no where in the story as the singers and dancers trot around in EmilieCharlotte’s costumes, which try hard to suggest historical accuracy and winsome eye candy, but are limited by a small budget and homemade craftsmanship. Suddenly, we’re thrown back into the film, and so the tug-o’-war continues for two hours. No matter how hard we try to concentrate on the story, we are quickly swatted away by crude pageantry, which is a shame, because a story was all the play needed to carry itself.
Upon entrance to the theater, guests are handed an article from the New York Times concerning a dreadful historic episode where during the War, the Korean government coerced their women into prostitution to appease American soldiers. Looking over the article, I worried how the issue would be handled in the play, if it would take sides, and if there would be a conclusion to these events despite the fact that there was none in real life. Apparently, though, that’s not what the play is about. It may just be a simple coming of age story, a theme that hardly holds any weight and has a hard time provoking any emotion from the audience. Only in the supersaturated scenes of exposition concerning the Korean girls, Suzie and Little Kim, do we see the story line pushed further. Finding a through-line from the unrefined lyrics in the early song “The Clap” to the painful “Little Kim’s Song” to the eventual sharp, staccato scenes of action that lead us to a climax, the play had enormous potential to tackle this intriguing issue, but apparently, it doesn’t fail to do so; it refuses.
Distracted by the contrasting media presentation, the play insists upon the non-avant-garde styling, which muddles up the story as well as the acting. Whenever a live performer sings, headlined by the decent efforts of Melvin Chambry, Jr. and Aja Nisenson, we are sometimes unclear of who exactly they are supposed to be, in part because of their race (Philip M. O’Mara, a young Asian man, plays the very Jewish Greenberg once or twice) and in part by the hazy, repetitious lyrics which give only vague clues as to which character is pouring his or her heart out.
The movie isn’t much clearer in terms of plot or character; Walt Shelton (Chima), one from the trio, occasionally steals the spotlight, from occupying the subject of the Act One finale to the small subplot concerning his penalization for being absent without leave, but immediately the focus shifts to Frankie Greenberg (Evan Shultz) and Little Kim’s demise later in the second act. Shultz displays skill as an actor in this production, albeit comically, through his contorted expressions and his shrill New York accent, however his histrionic approach to the material is perhaps best suited to the stage, not the screen. Although the two scenes he had with his love interest, Little Kim, were genuine and pleasant, they were not enough to convince us that they fall in love in a very short amount of time.
Certainly quick romances aren’t unorthodox, especially in theater, as in “West Side Story”, whose action takes place in one day. However, the love between Tony and Maria is believable to us because the entire story hangs off of that fact, so no unrealistic time constraint deters us from the play. In “Coming of Age in Korea”, Greenberg’s “love” for Little Kim comes on too late and ends too early to ever be considered real.
The play is riddled with these frequent lapses from reality in which it declares its theatricality, including, for instance, a line where a peripheral character comments that the protagonists won’t be friends in 40 years, despite us knowing that they will. These self-referential hiccups, which some dilettantes might deem “Brechtian”, are realistically just an elbow-in-the-ribs-style joking with the audience; the play is not so much an interpretation of reality but, rather, an interpretation of such a concept. While directors Desmond Richardson and Gabrielle L. Kurlander are not intentionally letting the audience glean a particular message about racism or war or the governmental duress of local women into prostitution, it would appear that the play (or movie) is at the very least trying to do exactly that.
Accordingly, we as the audience are left in an abrupt quandary. It is as if we are looking at a stained glass window, a mélange of spectacle, music and film, with the dim light of a thought trying desperately to break through. By the end, though, we find out that isn’t going to happen. As we applaud an awkward curtain call of the filmed performers, our praise wasted on discarnate actors, we are reminded finally that unless properly handled, the stage is best suited to drama or film, not both.
COMING OF AGE IN KOREA
Book & lyrics by Fred Newman; music by Annie Roboff; directed by Gabrielle L. Kurlander & Desmond Richardson; sets by Joseph Spirito; costumes by EmilieCharlotte; Presented by the Castillo Theatre . At 543 West 42nd Street, Manhattan. Through March 1. Running Time: 2 hours.
WITH: Chima Chikazunga, Natalie Chung, Emily Gerstell, Andrea Harrison, Amanda Henning-Santiago, Kaitlin Hernandez, Jim Horton, Brittney Jensen, Jaiwen Liang, Christine Komei Luo, Casey Mauro, Leroy Mobley, Brian Mullin, David Nackman, Lynnette Nicholas, Aja Nisenson, Vigdis Olsen, Philip M. O'Mara, Johanny Paulino, Reynaldo Piniella, Esteban Rodriguez-Alverio, Evan Schultz, Melvin Shambry, Jr., Isaac H. Suggs, Jr., Jeff Wertz.