inside a korean fantasy-bar

matthew o’neill: underground, metro arts

Thom Browning, Lee Chunnam, Underground

Thom Browning, Lee Chunnam, Underground

Thom Browning, Lee Chunnam, Underground

UNDERGROUND IS A PRODUCTION WHICH INEVITABLY OVERWHELMS ITS AUDIENCE. THE FINAL INSTALMENT OF METRO ARTS’ 2011 THE INDEPENDENTS IS IMMERSIVE TO SUCH A DEGREE THAT YOU FIND YOURSELF COMPLETELY FORGETTING ABOUT THE WORLD OUTSIDE THE VENUE. THE BASIC NARRATIVE OF THE PIECE CONCERNS THE FANTASTICAL AND HEARTBREAKING LIFE STORY OF HOYOUNG, PROPRIETOR OF SEOUL’S SHAMBOLIC UNDERGROUND BAR, AS TOLD BY THE VARIOUS STAFF AND PERFORMERS OF HIS ESTABLISHMENT.

The audience is invited into the seedy, celebratory Underground Bar. Motherboard Productions have spared no expense in bringing the experience to life. Production designer McK McKeague has transformed the entire Metro Arts’ Basement space into an astonishingly visceral and stunningly detailed approximation of a Korean speakeasy, complete with a fully functioning bar and a colourful array of characters and staff.

Stepping into the venue, you’re immediately flooded with all the apprehension, fear and excitement inherent in being thrust into an alien culture unprepared. This is Underground’s greatest achievement. Director Jeremy Neideck and ensemble afford their audiences an entire world to inhabit and explore over the course of the performance. It’s actually somewhat disappointing that the bar is only a fantasy.

The more overtly theatrical components of the work are less successful. The bar serves merely as a platform for the fairy-tale story of proprietor Hoyoung which, among other things, involves being a princess, losing a friend to a whale and a having a homosexual relationship with a wandering sailor. While the telling of the tale is rife with exceptional moments both poignant and comedic, its overall implementation is quite awkward.

Throughout, the ambition to combine aspects of both eastern and western performance traditions is evident—the nature of the narrative is perhaps the most obvious signifier. Writers Neideck and Nathan Stoneham employ western contemporary performance tropes within a colloquially eastern context—and, despite the undeniable cleverness of such a tactic, it’s here where complications arise.

Too often, elements of the narrative seem to jar against the backdrop of its telling. For example, a key scene involves Hoyoung’s character (performed by Neideck in the guise of bar worker Jules) experiencing the loss of his closest friend, stolen by a whale. Hoyoung’s grief is communicated through a tableau involving a vast cardboard model whale, precise physical performance and a truly gorgeous musical number performed en masse by the bar’s staff members.

Tak Hoyoung, Underground

Tak Hoyoung, Underground

Tak Hoyoung, Underground

Make no mistake; it’s a stunning sequence. It haunts the rest of the production. However, its grandiose, complicated presentation immediately yanks the audience out of that exciting bar in Korea and drops them roughly back in that basement in Brisbane—and there are simply too many such moments for the narrative not to prove frustrating. Though often enjoyable, they just don’t work in the world Neideck and his ensemble have created.

The musical aspects of the production are often the most frustrating in this regard. Hoyoung’s narrative is punctuated by several original song-and-dance numbers of varying sophistication but the majority of them are too polished (in composition and execution) to not seem contrived against their consciously rough-hewn backdrop.

The relationship which develops between Hoyoung’s character and the wandering sailor is another example. While it’s not entirely bereft of pathos, Neideck largely opts to play the courtship for broad comedy. In addition to jarring with the bohemian spirit of the venue in which the production is supposedly being performed, it robs the relationship of the dramatic significance it requires to drive the plot.

There are other issues—Neideck doesn’t fully convince as Jules and the narrative tends towards a patchwork of ideas. However the show’s shortcomings sometimes make a bizarre kind of sense within the world of Underground. Like the gloriously chaotic and immersive design, they suggest the spontaneous and roughshod environment of a Korean speakeasy. It’s ironically only when matters seem a little too sophisticated or over-rehearsed that flaws become truly pronounced.

Nevertheless, such flaws are far from fatal. While marred by imperfections, Underground is at no point an uninteresting theatrical experience. For the most part, it remains remarkable. This is still bold, adventurous, inspirational performance-making. One only hopes that the ensemble will be given an opportunity to unearth the masterpiece so evident just beneath the surface.

Underground, director Jeremy Neideck, designer, assistant director McK McKeague, co-writers Jeremy Neideck, Nathan Stoneham, performers Tak Hoyoung, Park Younghee, Lee Chunnam, Thom Browning, Jeremy Neideck, Nathan Stoneham, Abe Mitchell, lighting Hamish Clift, costumes Noni Harrison, producer Dave Sleswick; The Independents, Metro Arts, Brisbane, Nov 9-26

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 39

© Matthew O’Neill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

21 February 2012