Through the Korean looking glass

지하 Underground (Motherboard Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse,Turbine Studio

February 12 – 23

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“지하 Underground” is a pop-up Korean speakeasy bursting with live music and magical storytelling, that can be found nestled in the Brisbane Powerhouse’s Turbine Studio for the duration of 2014’s WTF Festival. As its elusive description suggests, this is an unconventional show in all of its elements, in fact more of an experience than a show, as audience members explore the fantasy world created by Motherboard Productions.

The setting is a happy accident of a wonderland, fashioned from a mix of old armchairs and eclectic décor. There is a bar in one corner, a stage in the other and the walls are papier-mâchéd with Korean newspapers. It’s an intriguing yet inviting aesthetic, with audience members soon feeling at home among the neon setting of scattered bric-a-brac and floating cardboard whale. The more you scan the scene, however, the more you don’t know where to look, such is the range of random prop positioning, from plastic palm trees, beach umbrellas, ukulele and maracas to Rubik’s Cube, exercise bike and Christmas tree. (Kitchen utensils moonlighting as ocean creatures is a particular, creative highlight) Surrounded by so much colour and movement, it is difficult to predict the precise direction the show is going to take, but the anticipation is palpable, especially knowing of the show’s critical acclaim.

지하 Underground” was created by Jeremy Neideck and Nathan Stoneham, alongside an international team. The work has been nominated for several Matilda awards and won the Green Room Groundling Award for Best New Musical (2012). From the reaction at its announcement at the WTF launch it was clear that this was the show to see at the 2014 festival. And it does not disappoint comparative to this lofty expectation.

The show itself is a mix of peppy Korean pop with harmless humour, beginning with bingo and soon sharing the story (narrated in English and Korean) of a Coconut Princess’ strange and beautiful, journey through the world with her first love. It is a voyage revealed through song and dance, and highlighted by the wonderful watermelon party (audience participation at its most joyous).

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The actors inhabit their roles with natural charm and loveable charisma, seen especially the animated antics of Hoyoung Tak and Chunnam Lee. And the singers are equally powerful in the moments of melancholy as in those of delight. (Younghee Park’s title track ‘Underground’ is a particular highlight.) Instruments range from drums to recorder and the ensemble presentation of a Ziggy Stardustesque finale “People of the Underground’ is a fitting conclusion to the musical celebration. The technical aspects of the show are complex yet controlled, with lighting used to complement the lush set, creating a joyful kaleidoscope of colour and eclecticism.

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“지하 Underground” is a surreal, spontaneous escape of the Korean Alice in Wonderland kind, especially when, after the show each night, the venue transforms into an operational bar so the party can continue after the show. What an idea! What a crazy, mad, wonderful idea.

Do not hesitate to book a ticket to this unashamedly feel-good show; after sell-out, critically acclaimed seasons in 2011 (Metro Arts) and 2012 (Brisbane Festival), this back-by-popular-demand season is selling fast. As a piece of theatre, it’s chaotic, but it is a divine chaos. Indeed, it’s all entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret; all the best things are.

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