Transcultural transcendence

심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard! (Brisbane Powerhouse and Motherboard Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

February 18 – 23

The epic tale of Shimchong, a motherless young girl who sacrifices herself to the under-sea Dragon King God in order to restore her father’s sight, is revered with Korean mythology. Yet, as noted by Director Jeremy Neideck, it is a story with significant currency, given this country’s recent refugee crises. And fittingly, political allusions and overt observation abound in this latest work from Motherboard Productions, in narrative premise, dialogue and a soundtrack that includes lyrics such as ‘they don’t speak for us; they don’t deserve our trust.’

“심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard!” is more melancholy than Motherboard’s last WTF hit “지하 Underground”, but appropriately so given its central political premise. Still, there are many moments of comedy as child’s play is used to parody its social commentary, complete with drawings, dioramas and torch-play to take audiences along a ride from abandoned submarine to a wrecked Kookaburra Queen as Shimchong (Alinta McGrady) encounters the Dragon King, who, according to prophecy, will be the cause wild sea storms and drownings.

Every aspect of the show is art. Clever props and original staging allow audiences to be taken to its distinct settings, with water maintaining place as cohesive tie. It trickles around the place as seagulls soar and jellyfish float across the stage’s palette. Lush lighting evokes an array of emotions, while its soundscape is stark in its realism, forcing characters to appropriately compete their dialogue against the sounds of hovering helicopters in its later lost-at-sea scenes. And costumes are versatile to allow for the multiple roles of many of its performers.

Giema Contini, in particular, transitions easily between multiple character roles, including as a memorably ignorant Susan from Noosa. And Ben Warren shows a Graham-Kennedy-esque comic skill, particularly alongside Younghee Park in the children’s show parody ‘Great Australian Bomb Making’. Park is of fine voice in powerful delivery of the peppy anti-government manifesto ‘Burn It Down’, while Alinta McGrady anchors the soundtrack with a soulful ‘I Want to be Seen’ and the haunting finale ‘All My Ghosts’.

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Accompanied by an array of instruments, songs range from the melodic contemplation to upbeat tempos and are memorable for their music as much as the messages, as is the case with ‘Roll Up’, a carnvialesque Ekka ditty with bouncy lyrics of urge to help the homeless and unemployed. Humour also often comes from the slap of lyrical, eloquent segments, also told in Korean, with ocker Australian lingo like ‘buckley’s chance’. Together the work to form a unique transcultural storytelling experience that typifies Motherboard’s conceptually driven, interdisciplinary work.

The story of Shimchong, destined to be Queen despite her determined disinterest in itself is a beautiful example of a myth of sacrifice such as those central to many cultural heritages. Thematically transcended to modern Australia’s border sovereignty vs loss of lives at sea struggle, it acquires a new resonance. With danger, drums and even a dunking machine, “심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard!” is a magically synergy that is best experienced rather than read about. Although it drags a little in latter part of its excessive 100 minutes running time, its mix of the political and personal not only reflects the focus of WTF’s aim to feature international works that challenge the traditional definitions of theatre, but demonstrates all that theatre should be… innovative, engaging and relevant as means of investigating the world and ourselves.

Snacks, songs and sentiment

The 떡볶이Box (The Dokboki Box)

Metro Arts

May 21 – June 7

‘Pull up a shitty plastic stool and share a Korean snack’ is how audiences are urged into “The 떡볶이Box (The Dokboki Box)”. It is an entirely apt tagline to describe the experience of this unique show of shared snacks, songs and sentiment that takes place in the Metro Arts laneway.

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Upon entry into the orange tent that houses the show’s intimate setting (the titular box), the audience is met with the sight of Younghee Park cooking dok boki (translated as rice cakes) and odeng (fish cake) soup. It is an appropriate initial image, not just because this is the food that we will soon be sharing, but because “The Dokboki Box” is very much her story. The result is a heart-warming tale of music and memories, as, accompanied by Nathan Stoneham, Younghee shares her Korean story of life, love and the loss of her sweet Sonny.

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There are plenty of poignant moments, such as the sentimental song ‘Green Cheese Moon’ in tribute to Younghee’s grandmother’s belief that one day the moon will be made of green cheese and after than nobody will be hungry anymore and everyone will be kind to each other. However, there are also a lot of laughs, including from Younghee’s animated impression of her mother Madame Park’s love-live advice (‘If you marry Sonny, your life is over’), proving that a mother’s wisdom suffers not from language barriers, and through the hilarity an upbeat karaoke number from Stoneham. The transitions between dialogue and song are seamless and the musical numbers certainly serve to showcase Younghee’s powerful and impressive voice.

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“The Dokboki Box” is a quirky, happy adventure of snacks, songs and even a Spice Girls sing-along. While it is far from a traditional theatre experience, this is its strength, its fabulously vibrant and genuinely beautiful strength. “The Dokboki Box” is a consuming experience; though it begins as a Korean story, it ultimately tells a universal tale with transcendent messages of love, affirmed by the poster adages that adorn the performance space walls in hope that one day the moon will be made of green cheese. Indeed, “The Dokboki Box” is a wonderful work of art that deserves to be experienced.  So, do you yourself and favour and don’t be a stranger.

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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.