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Theatre in Review: Wild Goose Dreams (Public Theater)

Photo: Joan Marcus

Wild Goose Dreams has such a touching and up-to-the-moment story to tell, it's a pity that Hansol Jung, the playwright, and Leigh Silverman, the director, didn't trust it more. You sometimes have to stare very hard to see past all the unnecessary bells and whistles built into the script and staging, but it's worth the effort, even if the final result isn't entirely satisfactory. Jung is a perceptive, talented writer with a fresh point of view and material that is both exotic and oddly universal. Now, if only she could learn to dial it down a bit.

At the heart of Wild Goose Dreams is a poignant midlife romance, featuring lovers who are lost in the political and technological maze that is modern South Korea. Yoo Nanhee is a refugee from North Korea, which she escaped at great risk; she claims to be honored to have a job "stocking beverages for the workers of the South Korean Government." The play begins with her memory of her father, telling her a bedtime story about an angel in captivity, which ends with the exhortation, "If you have to choose between family and flying, I hope you would choose the flying." Nanhee takes this as coded permission to escape, but she is profoundly alone in the capitalist carnival that is Seoul -- depicted here as a fast-paced, neon-tinted madhouse. Haunted by worries about her father up North, she pays a shady fixer to smuggle a smartphone to him, but it is all a scam.

Not entirely of her own volition, Nanhee ends up on an Internet dating site, where she meets Guk Minsung, who is a "goose father" -- a real-life term for Korean men who stay at home while their wives and children live in an English-speaking country. Such a plan is meant to boost the children's chances for success, but it does nothing for family unity, and Minsung can feel his loved ones drifting away -- a sensation that only deepens when his wife's and daughter's social media feeds fill up with photos of the Japanese-American businessman who is spending time with them. Meanwhile, Minsung lives frugally in a version of student housing, the better to send the lion's share of his salary to a spouse and offspring who barely acknowledge his existence.

Watching these two loners -- stuck in their lives, cut off from their families, and separated from each other by an enormous cultural divide -- it's almost impossible not to fall in love with them a little bit. After an encounter that leaves them more bemused than satisfied, Minsung, says, forlornly, that he knows women don't want to hear apologies after sex -- then asks, hopefully, "Is it sexy to apologize during sex in North Korea?" "It depends on the North Korean you are apologizing to," she replies, seemingly enigmatically, but most likely because she is at a loss for words. Emailing his wife, Minsung says, "For my birthday I wish for you to miss me. I wish to be more than an ATM machine that needs to be called at times such as a birthday." For her part, Nanhee counts her blessings: "I'm over thirty and haven't had plastic surgery. I'm surprised [Minsung is] still talking to me two weeks after sex." But she has a bigger problem: During her encounters with Minsung, she has begun to see her father in the room, watching her. At first, she seeks out sex in order to call up the older man's image, but soon she is tormented by nightmares in which he is being tortured by government officials -- because of her. His appearances become increasingly surreal -- he rises up from a toilet, in a penguin suit -- calling into question Nanhee's emotional stability.

Even as their lives are unraveling and both are wrestling with dismayingly unclear futures, Minsung tells Nanhee, "You make me feel less old and less useless." After she concedes that he has had "an impact" on her -- this is as close as they get to a term of endearment -- he asks, longingly, "Couldn't we call that love, for now, and see what happens? Couldn't that be enough, for now?"

Jung is also good on the electronic ties that bind the characters even as they keep them apart. Much of Nanhee and Minsung's affair is conducted digitally, even after they get together. We see Nanhee on the phone with the man she initially believes to be her father but who probably is part of an elaborate con. Minsung grows distressed over the increasingly brief and uncommunicative messages from his wife and daughter; he is reduced to spying on their activities via social media, until they cut him off altogether. At a low point, Minsung, who repeatedly recalls his youth in a band, writes a song about suicide that becomes a YouTube sensation, affording him a few minutes of fame.

But Jung has loaded her intimate tale of love and loss with a battery of devices that all but demand a turbocharged staging. Like many plays these days, besides the three leads -- Minsung, Nanhee, and her father -- Wild Goose Dreams features a supporting company who take on "tracks" of multiple small roles. Fair enough, but these actors are also tasked with impersonating the flow of noise and messages that make up the Internet. This leads to any number of noisy, showy, and wildly intrusive passages that interfere with the action and bury the principals under a ton of visual and aural static. You really have to hunker down for the opening sequence, which, after a brief appearance by Nanhee's father, features an assault force of actors doing actory things. They run around shouting the following, with each line assigned to a different performer:

"Breaking News! Presidential summit at the DMZ cancelled due to..."
"POP UP Win a free trip to the paradise of your dreams..."
"Ding! From calendar. Traffic is slower than usual leave now for / meeting with..."
"POP UP you know you deserve this special..."
"Close. Look up: traffic in Seoul, Search."

Of course, each of these lines is delivered with a zap of energy and a different funny voice. And every time someone in the play sends a message, the entire company chants "ones and zeroes, ones and zeroes" repeatedly until you start to whimper for mercy. There are other distractions, too: When Minsung and Nanhee are communicating online, why do other actors step in to speak for them?

There's also a general business to Silverman's staging that adds plenty of rushing about for no reason at all. Similarly, to the extent that Clint Ramos' set design -- which covers the stage and house with images ranging from historical photos to glittering cityscapes, neon motel signs, manga characters, and more -- creates a bright, shiny world in which to engulf the characters, it certainly works. But did it need to be a whole-theatre immersion? Must Keith Parham's lighting splash saturated color washes here, there, and everywhere? On the plus side, Linda Cho's costumes are on the money for the characters, and Palmer Hefferan's sound design, especially some unsettling gunshots, is well done.

The leads excel at teasing out their characters' mixed-up souls. Michelle Krusiec finds a certain tenderness under Nanhee's anomie and loneliness, as well as her creeping fear of having betrayed her father. (The play is fairly vague about her escape from the North, which is not helpful.) Peter Kim, brandishing a nervous, hopeful smile, yet retreating to his smartphone when at a loss, is equally fine as Minsung. As Nanhee's father, who is more an idea than a character, Francis Jue puts his considerable charm and presence to work. The very active supporting cast includes familiar faces such as Dan Domingues and Joel Perez Joél Pérez, rushing about professionally, if frantically.

Actually, the casting of the company is perhaps the most interesting thing about Wild Goose Dreams. Normally, for a play with an almost entirely Asian character breakdown, the entire cast would be drawn from the Asian community. While this is the case with the three leads, the rest of the lineup is diverse, including white, black, Latino, and Asian performers. It pushes the idea of nontraditional casting along in an interesting way, and I look forward to seeing how it is received.

On balance, I'd say that Wild Goose Dreams is worth seeing, for the many emotionally resonant passages, the acute lead performances, and the window into a world that the theatre rarely shows us. But in the urge to theatricalize everything about their story, its creators nearly destroy the delicate situation at its heart. Sometimes intimacy and subtlety are your best friends; that would certainly have been true here. -- David Barbour

(15 November 2018)

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