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Theatre in Review: Endlings (New York Theatre Workshop)

Miles G. Jackson, Jiehae Park. Photo: Chad Batka.

Celine Song, a new playwright, has a highly creative and theatrical turn of mind, even when she maroons herself on dramatic high ground, leaving herself with no room to maneuver. Endlings cannot be classified as a success, but it's an interesting miss that leaves one curious to see what else she can do. The play is a strange, gangly crossbreed, combining a set of characters you've almost certainly never seen before with the playwright's highly personal conflicts as an artist and a Korean émigré. And it comes complete with an enormous swimming turtle!

Actually, Endlings features a great deal of swimming. The show's initial subject is the haenyeos, women on a remote Korean island who make a living diving for seafood. It is pitilessly hard work, done three-hundred-sixty-five days a year, unless storms make diving too perilous. Otherwise, several hours are spent each day going in and out of the water, acquiring cuts and bruises along with shellfish and squid. Astonishingly, Song's three heroines range in age from their mid-seventies to their mid-nineties; they have been on the job for decades. They are also the last of their line: Once, there were 15,000 haenyeos; when Han Sol, Go Min, and Sook Ja die, none will be left.

It's certainly an unusual premise for a play, and much of the pleasure found in the early scenes is due to Wai Ching Ho, Emily Kuroda, and Jo Yang. Actresses of a certain age, they don wet suits and repeatedly dip into the water tank built into Jason Sherwood's imaginative set in search of merchandise. Sitting on the beach, sorting through their take, they engage in blunt, salty, often-profane exchanges. Two of them frankly admit to driving their children away from this hardscrabble life, accepting the solitude that this entails; living alone -- their husbands are long gone -- they fill their nights with television. None of them has the slightest illusion that anything is left but more hard work and, hopefully, a quiet passing. Noting their weathered looks, they chalk them up to "a lifetime of mummification" caused by sun, wind, and sea water.

Pretty much from the beginning, however, the playwright has put a pair of symbolic quotation marks around these scenes. An unseen narrator, on voiceover, introduces the characters and encourages the audience to greet them. Occasionally, a scene will freeze, work lights will come on, and the stage crew will appear, rearranging props and/or spritzing the ladies with water. Clearly, something is afoot: It is already obvious that an evening spent at the seashore with this trio will be sorely lacking in drama. Having established the bleak facts of their lives, Song struggles to make something theatrically interesting of their monotonous existence.

Next, however, the playwright enters the action in the form of Ha Young, a Korean-Canadian writer living in Manhattan. (As played by Jiehae Park, she bristles alternately with anger and anxiety, delivering her lines with such relentless intensity that she loses some of the humor in the script.) Taking the stage, she recounts her riveting family history, in which her forbears were separated by the arbitrarily drawn line dividing North and South Korea; some of them were brutalized by communists and others took backbreaking work to get ahead. Her mother, who sounds utterly indomitable, takes the plunge, bringing the family to North America with few prospects in tow. That the play exists is proof that they have done well, but at the price, perhaps, of losing a sense of their roots. In what may be the play's most poignant detail, Ha Young recalls her late grandmother, known to her only via the occasional telephone call, who struggled to leave behind $200 legacies to each of her granddaughters.

What, you may be wondering, does Ha Young's story have to do with the haenyeos? As it happens, the play we have been seeing is her invention, and she is distinctly ambivalent about it. Until now, she says, she has been writing "white plays," presumably in hopes of getting produced by a major New York theatre. (She is also plenty unhappy with life in Manhattan, where she and her husband share a tiny, mouse-infested apartment with a superb view of an adjoining building. As she puts it, "I don't want to sell my skin for theatre. I don't want to sell my skin for a piece of real estate.") But, having completed one act of her haenyeo drama, she admits, at first reluctantly and then furiously, that maybe, in hopes of finding acceptance, she has prostituted herself by serving up a slice of exotic Korean local color -- exactly the sort of a thing that a white artistic director might expect of her. What's an honest writer to do?

Hard to say, because this marks the spot where Endlings pretty much goes off the rails. The question of Ha Young's career (and the fate of her play) is left hanging, if only because we never get a sense of what really interests her. She is loaded with complaints about what others might expect, but we never hear a word about what she hopes to accomplish as an artist. There is an amusing sequence in which she and her spouse, known in the script as White Husband -- he wears a sign denoting him as such -- attend a production at New York Theatre Workshop ("This is where they did Rent," she says, eagerly, as they enter the auditorium); the play features a cast of four white men, who intone lines like, "Oh my white god hear my white prayer. A white person is going to die, or a white person died a long time ago." It's a funny, if wildly obvious, idea that runs on far too long. (The point is also slightly blunted by being staged by the company that, in the last few seasons, has presented runboyrun & In Old Age, 17 Border Crossings, Slave Play, The House That Will Not Stand, An Ordinary Muslim, Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, Nat Turner in Jerusalem, and Hadestown, among others, but let that pass.)

After this, Endlings has no endgame -- well, we do get a load of that giant swimming turtle, along with three clam puppets, which add more whimsy to a play that scarcely needs it -- marking time until Song engineers an admittedly touching meeting between Ha Young and Han Sol, the oldest of the haenyeos, revealing a heretofore unmentioned connection between them. Even here, however, the playwright comes perilously close to drawing a parallel that makes one squirm: Does Song really think that Ha Young's scramble to establish her career and find a nice place to live is the same thing as the haenyeos' struggle for survival? I understand that her rent is too damn high -- but still.

Song is lucky to have as her director Sammi Cannold, who, together with her designers, has come up with a consistently stimulating production design. Sherwood's inventions include a miniature New York skyline (through which Ha Young strides, like a colossus) and windows built into the upstage water tank, revealing, among other things, that turtle, realized courtesy of costume designer Linda Cho. Bradley King's lighting design creates eye-grabbing sunlight washes and colorful sunset looks. The sound design, Elisheba Ittoop and Ien DeNio, includes highly atmospheric evocations of surf, seagulls, television shows, thunderstorms, and the haenyeos' official song.

Still, the most inventive creative team can't paper over the fact that Endlings is constructed out of two narrative stands that lead nowhere. Even audience members who struggle with issues of multiple ethnic identity might not be deeply engaged by Ha Young's search for a second act. That's the work the playwright is supposed to do before we get to the theatre.--David B arbour

(10 March 2020)

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