We go to the theater to experience a condensed form of reality. A playwright establishes the concept and characters, a designer creates the environment, actors portray roles meant to endear (or repel) and expose (or conceal) truths, and a director brings it all together.
But we also go to the theater to experience fantasy. This is not our reality, whether it appears similar to ours or completely unfamiliar, and whether it proceeds logically or defies the laws of nature. What we see onstage is, by nature, otherworldly.
Ambitious theater deftly combines reality and fantasy. It breaks rules. It’s magical. It can be jarring, even uncomfortable, and leave us questioning its meaning and our own.
Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, currently at the Fountain Theatre, is undeniably ambitious. It is whimsical and deep, historical and mythological. It takes us into a realm between reality and fantasy, North and South Korea, Korea and the U.S., insider and outsider, life and death. Even the stage veers between bare and richly decorated, using a clever combination of projections and moving pieces. Its cast list also includes “Shapeshifter” (the impressive Jully Lee).
It is 2011. Kim Jong Il is about to die and Hannah (Monica Hong) is about to take her medical boards in New York. She receives a strange package from her grandmother and hastens to South Korea. There she finds her parents (Janet Song and Hahn Cho), who didn’t want to interrupt her studies with the alarming news that her grandmother has jumped off the roof of her apartment building.
It turns out Grandma has landed in a forbidden Demilitarized Zone forest, where a tiger and a bear roam. The significance of the animals is tied to the creation myth for Korea itself, as is the garlic the family eats. The package that spurred Hannah to head to Korea contained a wish in a jar, another mythical layer.
Life between two worlds is a balancing act, for immigrants and for the play that represents their experiences and perceptions. Jennifer Chang directs Hannah with creativity and elan, and it succeeds despite feeling slightly unbalanced, mysterious, unreal and sometimes redundant.
This is Hannah’s California premier; its world premiere was in 2017 at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo is at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., just east of Normandie, through Sept. 22. It was produced in association with East West Players, which did the first developmental reading of Hannah in 2013. Tickets are $25-45. On-site parking is available for $5. For more information, see www.fountaintheatre.com.