by Lillian Meredith · August 13, 2014
The Princess Pyunggang is a fable, a well-known ancient story from Korea, that tells of a beautiful princess who marries a fool and turns him into a courageous general. Stock characters perform impossible feats, meet with demons, and reunite with long lost relatives. It’s the kind of story that transcends cultural boundaries, and a theatrical event that is recognizable the world over for its simplicity and clarity and familiarity.
Unfortunately, there is a lot lost in translation in Bibimbab Theater’s musical production. On the most basic level, it is almost impossible to tell what the actors are saying. Between broad acting choices and incomprehensible conversation, the actual text gets almost completely lost despite visible body mics. Moreover, the canned music that underscores all of the songs ends up swallowing a lot of the language, so there are whole sections of sung storytelling that are essentially inaudible. This, in addition to muddy staging by director Jong Yeoup Lee, makes for a tedious and occasionally uncomfortable production.
It’s a pity, because there are some moments in the show that are really theatrically compelling, and a few that are positively transcendent. Goblins in masks snuck around upstage just out of the light. A white sheet carried a paper ship offstage to the afterlife. Performers danced out a battle with flags and swords and martial arts. And upstage, behind it all, sat five drums – one enormous one facing out and four smaller ones on either side, all of them painted and beautiful. They were only played twice. First, at the top, before any words were spoken, as an introduction to the piece, a single performer played the giant drum at center, his back to us, the vibrations making the drum sound like it was singing. Second, in a celebration at the end of the battle, the four small drums pushed forward, all five played in unison and in syncopation, the three drummers moving in rhythm with their instruments and shouting in time. It was mesmerizing and magical. And in these moments of live performance, when the canned music was turned off and the body mics were lowered, these small sections of pure analog performance, that the story was clear, the experience profound, and I wished that the play would go on forever.