Jiehae Park’s play, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, where it was seen by Fountain Theatre Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, who found a way to bring to it to Los Angeles. The play, co-produced by Fountain Theatre in partnership with East West Players, is set in 2011 shortly before the death of Kim Jong Il, father of the current North Korean tyrant, Kim Jong Un.
Upon entering the theatre, I was struck by the acting area—a plain black floor and upstage wall. Hmmm…I said to myself. Wonder what’s up? The lights go down and an old woman in a nightgown (the marvelous Shapeshifter, Jully Lee) appears in a dim spotlight running toward the audience and literally disappears when the light goes black. An anxious, very serious young woman (Monica Hong) appears, the Hannah of the title, and starts the play proper in a prologue, talking to the audience and setting the scene and situation with magical animation.
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo is a generational story concerning an ambitious young doctor, just two weeks away from the final exams for her pediatric specialty, who receives a package in the mail from her South Korean grandmother. Inside the box is a small vial containing a tiny white stone, along with a note in Korean, which she cannot read. Unable to reach anyone by phone in her family—not her parents or grandmother in Seoul, or her brother in New York—she flies to Korea to find out what’s up. What is up? Grandma, a reluctant resident in a high-rise old folks home jumped to her death, landing in the adjacent DMZ, a sticky international situation.
We meet the family. Hannah’s mother (Janet Song), seriously depressed, wants a gazebo to go along with the trellises she has acquired, not reasonable in an apartment in a tall building. Father (Hahn Cho) is a rigid, authoritarian type, totally unable to control his unruly family. He maintains that Grandma may not be dead because he hasn’t seen the body. Hannah’s brother, Dang (Gavin Lee), an amiable slacker musician, also shows up in Seoul and becomes friendly with a delightful, vivacious, firecracker of a girl (Wonjung Kim). Along the way, in an effort to recover grandma’s body, in the DMZ remember, the family encounters more people—a politician, a receptionist, a nurse, an old guy who tells Dang a story, and more—all played by the shape-shifting Ms. Lee.
Directed by Jennifer Chang, the performances are wonderful–potent with some delightful whimsy, serious in basic plot, with an affecting, soft basso ostinato of genuine grief. The play is literally magical.
Scenic/Video Designer Yee Eun Nam’s basic black set, with lighting by Rebecca Bonebrake, disappears with wonderful surprises that include set pieces that roll-on or pop out of the set, and excellent animated video images that transport an audience to Korea. Costumes are by Ruoxuan Li; props by Michael Allen Angel. Original music and sound design is by Howard Ho. Dominik Krzanowski is the magic consultant, and the stage is efficiently managed by Bryan P. Clements.
The show has a capstone, an unexpected, utterly brilliant moment of pure theatrical. I say no more!
Presented by The Fountain Theatre, in association with East West Players, and produced by Stephen Sachs, Deborah Culver, Simon Levy and James Bennett, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo continues through September 22 at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue in Los Angeles.