Exeunt sent two critics–Nicole Serratore, who has some expertise in the Korean language and culture, and Loren Noveck, does not–to review the bilingual play To the Ends of the Earth / 땅끝까지 at Brooklyn’s JACK. Here’s what they thought:
Loren: Sometimes I really enjoy a piece of theater that challenges my position as an informed audience member. (For example, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, where the laugh lines clearly fell quite differently for anyone in the audience who’d spent time in a braiding salon.) As a critic and an editor at Exeunt, I have a lot of ability to curate my shows for review toward things that I expect to have something intelligent to say about. So intentionally doing something like going to a bilingual play in English and Korean, without any ability to understand the Korean, was a challenge that I welcomed, especially when accompanied by a fellow critic who had some of the expertise I lack. But I found To the Ends of the Earth challenging in ways I didn’t expect–more on the grounds of its slippery abstractness of narrative and character than on the language. I found it hard to keep myself anchored in its constant shifts, in the way it seemed to push the audience away every time you started to feel an emotional absorption.
Bridget Kim and Yeena Sung play an array of characters, some for a single beat, none for more than a single scene. Sometimes the relationships between them are clear–mother/daughter, older sister/younger sister, long-lost friends, childhood companions, grandmothers talking about their granddaughters, partners. Sometimes by the time I grasped the time and place of a scene, they’d moved on again. Sometimes the shift is indicated by a costume change (Hahnji Jang (장한지)’s costumes feature a plaid theme so a lot of the costumes are aesthetically of a piece even when the characters shift); sometimes an accent; sometimes just a subtle acting change. Some of the scenes are quick character sketches; some longer storytelling monologues. (I generally found the scenes with more interaction more successful; Choi’s monologues can slip a little too far into abstract narrative prose, and adding a more presentational storytelling style isn’t necessarily helpful in a piece that’s already so little grounded in character.)
One thing this reminded me of strongly was Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information: a series of vignettes clustered on a theme, where the goal was the way the threads angled and reflected off each other rather than engagement with any individual scene or character. Here, the theme is both the specificity of the Korean diaspora and its push-pull of national and personal identity but also, on a larger level, the impossibility of living in the world at all, of making decisions and choices when every fork in the road shuts off pathways to another life. There are certain commonalities to the stories told here–immigration or children of immigrants; the jealousies and tribulations of female adolescence–but overall there’s also a sense of loss.
Nicole: In the car ride home, I too was thinking about Love and Information: the rapid-fire nature of the presentation, the smash cut moments, and the characters coming and going never to return again. And maybe, like with L&I, the strength is in those fleeting moments. I thought the performers were strong and carried these quick vignettes quite well.
But I thought the play was ending with its second-to-last scene, a monologue spoken by an “Actor,” which at first I thought was the playwright’s own voice. Then I realized it was not. I’m still struggling to reconcile the final scene that follows that monologue with the whole play.
I’ve been studying Korean for 3 years so my language skills are at an advanced beginner level. I was able to catch words (crazy, hair, right, dream, worry) but not whole scenes. (That said, I totally understood one scene was relaying a recipe so I hope I get some partial credit for that.) When one character lamented that after memorizing 10,000 English words they were “still not good,” my heart sank. Me and my 6,000 homemade Korean flashcards understand what running this linguistic gauntlet feels like. I have cried a lot of tears in my language lessons. Not being able to fully be your whole self in another language is agonizing.
I have to assume the piece is designed to not just be for Korean-speakers, though. Giving us characters who speak Korean, English with Korean accents, and English with no discernible accents helped to suggest time periods, generational differences, and a range of immigration experiences. And girls in traditional Korean clothing (jang-ots), discussions of warriors and bows and arrows, karaoke (noraebang in Korean), and life at the back of a laundromat really showed that it was covering a huge swath of time.
There were issues I’ve seen addressed in Korean media relating to beauty standards (plastic surgery), pressure to succeed, and shame. I could not tell if the American Pie song moment was a reference to the President of Korea’s recent performance of the same song at the White House. (From the script, it looks like it was.) And I think the reference to stealing a rabbit’s liver was a piece of Korean folklore.
But I think there’s a lot that is more diaspora specific: issues of language, assimilation, promises, and disappointment. There’s so much loss.
That came through clearly.
Loren: So much loss and so much striving for connection. “Come as far as you can and I will go the rest of the way to you,” says one of the characters in the play’s final and longest scene, the only one where we linger in a bond between people. The preceding scenes show tantalizing snapshots of character and conversation, but are almost devoid of narrative; in some of the monologues, characters tell an anecdote, but each scene is a moment, with no movement through time. We slip from one person to another and sometimes step to an outside place commenting on the nature of performance and history. Director Keenan Tyler Oliphant and the design elements mark transitions from scene to scene with either physical movement or costume or lighting shifts, but nothing gives us a strong sense of time or place for any of them without listening carefully to the tiniest details in the dialogue. It’s both a little bit of a relief and a confusing twist, as you say, to find a more conventionally realist, longer scene at the end. Especially since that scene seems to move away from the play’s thematic preoccupations and into something that’s both more universal and more generic. (It also includes a bit involving a TikTok that I did not understand at all.)
But that scene also leans in to the urge for connection and for being seen by another, where so many of the other scenes involve misunderstandings and slippages of connection: two friends judging another or their children; mother and daughter with different understandings of the world; two sisters quarreling.
Nicole: It’s interesting to end with a couple when I didn’t sense any of the dynamics we saw before as romantic partners (from the script I see one scene was apparently a blind date, but I did not clock that at all in the moment). And yet the final scene, even if addressing that sense of connection, was somehow the least effective one for me. Why when we had more time with them, was something less convincing?
The abstraction didn’t bother me throughout (though I think naturally I was waiting for that to add up to something thematically) because even with only a glimpse of each, I thought I had enough of a handle on what the characters were talking about. But then when the shape of the play coalesced into a concrete scene with concrete characters, in retrospect, I was troubled by the vagaries. The details of the couple were specific (about to welcome a surrogate baby, one was more actively engaged in getting ready than the other) but the meltdown monologue of one of them felt too floaty.
I understand the aspects of identity the character who launches into that monologue was bearing (losing herself, a sense of meaninglessness, carrying the weight of parental expectations). But the way the playwright expressed those thoughts through abstraction felt more avoidant. It was reaching maybe too far for a grand statement and lost the actual humans in the process. I’m not sure.
I liked Emmie Finckel’s set design quite a bit. Using horizontal blinds that are sometimes tangled to form “fan” shapes, the sense of knowing and not knowing, obscuring but seeing was a nice visual metaphor.
Loren: Especially when that final moment hinges on seeing and being seen by another: “I want…the vision to see, clearly, with piercing clarity because–because–I see you so clearly.” You could describe the arc of the play as this yearning for connection across diaspora but also, even more simply, as this yearning to have the totality of oneself be seen–even if glimpsed through those tangled blinds.