It’s not often we here at The Nerds of Color review theatre performances but once in a while, there comes a production so wonderful, magical, and full of heart that it must be told for all to know. That production is Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, performing in Los Angeles at the Fountain Theatre (in association with East West Players) from now till September 29.
Written by Jiehae Park and directed by Jennifer Chang, it stars an extraordinary ensemble cast composed of Monica Hong, Gavin Lee, Hahn Cho, Wonjung Kim, Jully Lee, and the director herself Jennifer Chang.
All photos used in this post belong to Jenny Graham Photography
“Set in NYC and Korea in the winter of 2011, just before the death of Kim Jong Il, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes Hannah’s Korean American family on a surreal, funny and heartbreaking adventure back to their roots in South and North Korea and the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them.
Hannah, played by Monica Hong (Ivanov at the Mint Theater in NYC,Please Stand By at Actor’s Playpen in LA), is two weeks away from becoming a board-certified neurologist when she receives a FedEx shipment from her grandmother with two things inside: a wish – and a suicide note. Hannah’s father (Hahn Cho, recently seen on TV in For the People, Magnum P.I., Swedish Dicks) and mother (Jennifer Chang, Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle Award-winner for Vietgone) have already moved back to South Korea to be near Grandma at the Sunrise Dewdrop Apartment City for Senior Living, which sits right on the edge of the DMZ. Meanwhile, Hannah’s slacker brother, Dang (Gavin Lee, whose credits include Blood, written and directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, and a recurring role on Fox’s The Orville) bonds over music with a student activist played by Wonjung Kim (Korea Musical Award for Best Actress, Ovation nominee for The Last Empress in L.A). In this strange and wonderful play that is a mix of unexpected whimsy, delightful comedy, profound despair and more than a little bit of magic, actress Jully Lee (Ladies at Boston Court, Tokyo Fish Story at South Coast Rep) appears in many forms.”
It is in the realm of theatre where we are given a chance to see art in its most raw, honest, and live nature. We go to theatre to experience magic in its simplest form, to be moved by the actors performing live in front of us in all their blisters and glory. Hannah and the Dread Gazebo delivers in all of that and so much more.
But in addition, the play stirred elements so deeply rooted within me, elements of internal warring factions that I’ve fought with my whole life until recently. It is, simply, the Korean American experience and this play has pulled all of those roots inside of me, sat me down, and gently guided me to take a good look at it. Yet it did all of this not with the overdone identity angst trope I often find in Asian American works but with magic, both in the ethereal and literal sense (thanks to the fine work from magic consultant Dominik Krzanowski, sound design by Howard Ho, and the beautiful set and video design from Yee Eun Nam).
Magic, in its most whimsical and purest form, can be hard to follow, if the viewer must be so adamant to follow what they’re watching in the logical, everything-must-be-explained kind of mentality. We’ve grown accustomed to that kind of thinking and scoff when things are presented in a not so linear format. This may be a complaint when one watches this play and it especially being the case when the Korean Bear and Tiger folktale presented early on becomes more and more intertwined with the real life situations that the main characters are facing.
But we go to theatre to let go of these hard set expectations, do we not? That in the brief limited time we are sitting in the dark, we forget the insane world around us and be transported to something else entirely. That the tall tales we hear, the ones that are so tall and so fantastical, are intrinsically tied with the harsh modern reality of our lives and every so often, we forget that they are one and the same. And that, yes, it won’t be explained to you in such a heavy handed way where someone goes “CONNECT THE DOTS, THERE YOU GO!”
This is important to keep in mind when one watches this play.
And what is a play without an able cast to bring it to life?
Monica Hong provides a tremendous strong anchor as our main lead as Hannah, the Americanized Korean daughter brimming with an enormous amount of stress as she becomes a soon-to-be physician in New York and dealing with her grandmother’s suicide at the same time. This role is an immensely challenging one as not only the actress have to be so fraught with hyper neurotic stress but to be the audience’s guide in what is happening with ease and charm as well as provide the emotional weight to make us care. Monica does all of that with such grace, wit, and humor.
Gavin Lee plays Hannah’s doofus musician brother Dang and is a sheer delight to watch as he fully inhabits the wonderfully charming yet idiotic essence of the character that makes you wonder if he is related to the Good Place’s Jason Mendoza (another wonderful example of the “Unintelligent Asian”). His telling of the Bear and Tiger folktale is one of the highlights of this play but do your best to pay full attention as you might be too busy laughing your butts off in how he tells the story.
Hahn Cho plays the Father, the kind of immigrant Korean dad who some white people might label as having “untraditionally woke hipness” but what he really is simply a dad who is with the times and cares about his family deeply (yes, those kind of Asian immigrant dads truly do exist in the real world). Hahn nails the Korean dad elements with the slightest smile and eyebrow raise but importantly, he imbues the role with heart and humor as his character tries his very best to hold his family together.
Wonjung Kim is the Girl, the impassioned social justice volunteer who Gavin Lee’s character encounters in his time at Seoul. Their chemistry together is absolutely joyful to watch and a large part of that is made possible by Wonjung as she delivers a fantastic charming performance, giving a surprising amount of depth and wit to the typical manic pixie dream girl type that she is first presented to be.
Jennifer Chang pulls off a truly remarkable double duty as the play’s director as well as the Mother, the matriarch of the family who doesn’t quite have it altogether as her family thinks she does. Jennifer so fully embodies the fatigue, the fear, and most importantly the wonder, as she goes back and forth from the real world to the fantasy world. It must be noted that the original role was performed by Janet Song but due to an injury, Jennifer made the courageous decision to declare that the show must go on and stepped in with smooth ease that one would think that she was already part of the main cast from the get go.
Last but not least, we have Jully Lee simply as the Shapeshifter. She is the multi-character part that portrays all the additional characters in Hannah’s narrative and as such, she is a sheer revelation to watch as she switches between characters with mind blowing ease (and with great assistance from the amazing costume designs of Ruoxuan Li) as she morphs from Grandmother to the dry cleaner, the Bear, the mysterious man on the subway, the nurse, the South Korean official, the North Korean dictator, and more. I have never seen an actor play so many characters and do so many insanely fast costume changes with such distinction and depth in such a master stroke that in a way, she anchors the show in the fantastical sense while Monica anchors it in the realistic sense.
It must be mentioned that throughout some of the scenes in the play, Korean will be often be used with no subtitles presented. BUT DON’T WORRY NON-KOREAN FOLKS (WHO ARE PROBABLY USED TO DUBBING), the actors do such an expressive job that the audience will have no problem understanding the gist of what is being said.
Personally, this play speaks so much to me as a Korean American but the success of this play is that the themes are universal and will speak to anyone who ever had to go through a family crisis and perhaps needed a bit of magical escapism in their own lives to deal with the tragedy and trauma that it entails. It is a riveting tale woven with heart, humor, and care and it is for that I cannot give a strong enough recommendation to immediately watch this play if you’re in the Los Angeles area.
P.S. This production may have one of the most delightful final curtain bows so be sure to witness that in all its glory.
Performances are Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, and Pay What You Want Mondays at 8pm. You can reserve tickets here or call (323) 663-1525.