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Beate Hein Bennett

Pandora’s Box in Korea

Feb. 23 – March 5, 2023, extended through March 12.
LaMama E.T.C., The Downstairs, 66 East 4th Street, NYC
Produced by Theatre No Theatre
Presented by LaMama E.T.C. in association with the Polish Cultural Institute and Korean Cultural Center New York with the support of Fondazione Teatro della Toscana
Thurs – Sat at 8 PM, Sun at 4 PM. Added dates: March 9 &10 at 8:00 PM, March 11 and 12 at 3:00 PM.
$30 Gen. adm., $25 students & seniors, www.lamama.org or 1 hour before show at box office
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett February 25, 2023.

Hyun Ju Baek in her solo show, "Han!"

Hearing the words on stage in a foreign language and watching movements, gestures, and facial expressions rooted in a foreign tradition creates a special relationship between performer and audience. One that is at once shrouded in mystery—what does it all mean?—but each moment’s mystery allows us to simply marvel at the richness of human expression. The artistry of the performer’s body as total instrument becomes the focus of the theatrical experience and carries meaning in itself.

Hyun Ju Baek, the Korean actor and playwright of ”Han!” carries us into the Korean essence of han with her body, her voice, her powerful presence. We first see her sitting on a bench, perfectly still with folded hands folded in her lap as her mouth gradually widens into an enigmatic smile and she utters the first line: “There is a fire in my mind.” (The English supertitle. Translation. It is difficult to let go of even a moment of her performance to catch a quick glimpse of the English supertitles as her expressiveness captivates the full attention of the viewer/listener. ) The word "han” appears quite frequently in her monologue that encapsulates the emblematic history of three generations of Korean women from grandmother, born under the Japanese occupation, to mother born after the war, and the contemporary young professional single daughter.

Hyun Ju Baek in her solo show, "Han!"

Laced throughout the intimate relationship of these women are fragments of Korean traditions reaching back thousands of years and carried in ancient songs that have bonded Koreans throughout the ages. What does the word han connote? Is it “Being” in a preternatural existential sense? Is it “Being Here”, (Heidegger’s Dasein), the Living in the Here and Now? It is moot to try to figure out the abstract meaning. In the translated text appears this line: “Through han past and present meet…Han is in each thing said and done and in each thing not said and not done.”

As Ms. Hyun Ju Baek performs "Han!" we grasp it through her range of expression. Her voice reaches in an instant from dark pain to bright joy over several octaves; her still body can explode into the wild motions of a little girl and then settle into a gentle motherly gesture, or sink into an old grandmother’s body, or strut as the arrogant “independent” young woman. Her supple face changes from zen stillness to a shy smile, or the grandmother’s impish grin, to ferocious open-mouthed pain ready to release a word with a deep moan, or sharp scream, or break into a ghostly laughter or song. Here is the physical manifestation of han—the Korean version of the Pandora’s Box of life lived between horror and hope. The Greek myth tells that when Pandora opened the box and all the horrors escaped—wars, plagues, disasters-- Hope hid in the darkest corner of the box.

Hyun Ju Baek in her solo show, "Han!"

Thomas Richards, the founder of Theatre No Theatre, is credited as the director of this solo performance. Mr. Richards, the son of renowned theater director Lloyd Richards, grew up in Manhattan but became the protégé and collaborator of the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski who was one of the most seminal theater makers to emerge in the 60s and 70s with a radical new approach to theater making. His ensemble work centered on an almost monastic rigorous mental, psychological, and physical training that resulted in haunting evocations of human suffering—in 1969 New York audiences could see his radical production of “Acropolis” set in Auschwitz.

Thomas Richards (L) and Jerzy Grotowski (R).
Photo courtesy La MaMa website.

A core tenet of the training and the performing is the discovery by the performers of their psychic connection to the human experience through incantations of ancient traditional songs. This informs their bodies and their voices. Ms. Hyun Ju Baek threads throughout her narrative performance fragments of ancient Korean songs (left un-translated) that serve as emblems of the Korean intergenerational cultural bond expressed in the concept of han which is said to have originated in the 1920s from the Japanese philosopher Yanagi Soetsu’s theory of “the beauty of sorrow.” Mr. Richards background in Grotowski’s approach to creating the physicality of a performance from deep within the body in combination with Ms. Hyun Ju Baek’s native Korean aesthetic and superbly trained instrument make for a spell-binding performance. Don’t miss it.


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