Jiehae Park's "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo" is a play about contrasts — the contrasts of generational shift, opposing worldviews, fantasy and reality, denial and acceptance, and the human experience.
In her layered and unusual work, which runs through Oct. 28 in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Thomas Theatre, Park has shown how issues of tradition and modernity, and a desire for change in the face of a painful historical context, will affect not just an individual life, or the dynamic between parent and child. When applied in a pressure cooker geopolitical environment, such issues can lead to a visceral mass psychosis that can traumatize an entire culture.
In "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo," the individual life belongs to an ambitious young woman returning to her country of origin in order to confront a family crisis. The culture is Korean and, needless to say, the play deals heavily with the divisions between North and South — the permanent psychic gash that is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — and how a strange series of events within one little family can correlate with a long-festering national wound that has remained for decades, imposing segregation as a reality of the daily experience.
When Hannah (Cindy Im) returns home to contend with the mysterious disappearance of her grandmother, she is met with a sort of banal hostility by her Mother (Amy Kim Waschke). Mom's particular brand of enmity is the toxic bridge between her own idea of history and the contemporary reality in which Hannah and her brother Dang (Sean Jones) find themselves living.
In counterbalance to Mother's cloying passive-aggressive posture is Hannah's over-cheerful and overcompensating Father (Paul Juhn), who is all about catering to his acrimonious bride while plastering on a smile and riding his bike dutifully to and from work. These four family members, as well as a politically militant hipster (Eunice Hong) and a mysterious Shapeshifter (Jessica Ko, in a remarkably fluid performance) make up a powerful ensemble cast that steers its audience into the weird and wonderful world of Park's imagination.
Shortly after Hannah's arrival onstage, she is in receipt of a peculiar parcel that literally drops from the sky above her, inside of which is the mother of all MacGuffins — a small glass vial containing a strange white object. What follows is a down-the-rabbit-hole psychedelic journey into a Korean version of "Through The Looking Glass," replete with anthropomorphic woodland creatures, wild storms, enraged magpies, ghosts of grandmothers past, an oddly benevolent apparition of Kim Jong Il with tiger paws for hands, and enough pyrotechnical wizardry to satisfy even the most jaded techno-junkie.
In the "real" world, Hannah and her brother wrestle with their parental demons on a checkerboard stage, where characters are positioned starkly against one another on grayish squares. A dizzying audio-visual projection of modern-day Seoul is a near constant reminder of the sheer velocity of the characters' daily lives. In the diametrically opposed "imagined" world of the DMZ into which Hannah, her mother, and her grandmother all summarily cross, flickering lights and the promise of mystical beasts gives way to weird dissociative interactions with invisible but hyper-vigilant North Korean soldiers and their whizzing bullets.
The gateways between these two worlds expand and contract with alarming frequency. Park and her director, Chay Yew, are adept at pushing and pulling the viewer in and out of their comfort zones. For whatever reason, this eccentric and astonishing play turns your insides out, but still manages to resolve itself in a profoundly moving and satisfying manner. The piece gives the feeling of a physical attack on the body. As an audience member, I was affronted and amazed. This is theater as it should be — blisteringly original, acerbically funny, powerfully dramatic and deeply thought-provoking.
It's also nutty, avant-garde and controversial, so you might want to start with some of the tamer offerings at OSF if you're tendency is to be scared off by a challenge. However, if you're keen to have your mind expanded by an evening of theater that is not going to be comparable to anything you'll see anytime soon, "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo" is a good place to start.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.