Review: KIM’S CONVENIENCE by Ins Choi. Produced by Taproot Theatre. Directed by David Hsieh and Scott Nolte. Scenic and Sound Design by Mark Lund. Costume Design by Pete Rush. Lighting Design by Amanda Sweger. With James Yi, Obadiah Freeman, Lia Lee, Annie Yim, Parker Kennedy. Onstage May 15 to June 22, 2019 at Taproot Theatre/Greenwood/North Seattle.
If you’re Canadian or a Korean immigrant living in an English dominate country or someone with a Netflix account who seeks out different kinds of comedy shows to watch, you’re probably already very much aware of the entertainment phenomenon known as KIM’S CONVENIENCE. It’s the situation comedy television show that has has aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) since 2016 and has become a big hit in Canada and abroad with viewers watching around the world. The show is about the Korean-Canadian Kim family who own a convenience store in a poor neighborhood of downtown Toronto. The Kims consist of bossy and opinionated family patriarch, Appa and his kind, religious wife Umma and their two children; a son named Jung who is estranged from his father after a rift that occurred when Jung was a teenager, and daughter, Janet who still lives at home. The show focuses on the inner dynamics among the family members with the Canadian raised kids clashing with their Korean born parents, as well as Appa’s interactions with customers and friends in the neighborhood.
The TV show is a big success but less known is the fact it was based on an original stage play of the same name by creator Ins Choi which debuted in Toronto in 2011 to great acclaim which led to a Canadian tour and productions in Vancouver and New York City in 2017. That original play now makes its West Coast U.S. debut at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre in North Seattle with a cast headed by Canadian actor James Yi as Appa, who has played the role in Vancouver area productions.
The play differs slightly from the TV series….the kids are both over 30 in the play and their ages were lowered for TV. Other changes for the CBC: Appa was made a bit less abrasive though he’s still a bit of an “Archie Bunker” type and Umma’s role was punched up. And, frankly, all these changes were smart ones because most of the problems I had with this Taproot production relate to the play itself and those exact same issues:
- Appa is an abusive and racist jerk in the play
- Umma has NOTHING to do
- Having 30+ year old kids limits story possibilities
Mangled English, matchmaking moms, meddling dads….Kim’s Convenience has everything you’d expect from ethnic comedy, an entertainment staple for…well, always. It’s a genre that has ranged from Yiddish speaking matriarchs to hot tempered Italian dads to wisecracking Mexican tias and tios; audiences may not want anyone different from themselves moving next door, but folks sure do love an ethnic comedy, regardless if you’re part of that ethnicity or not.
And, that’s very much the case with Kim’s Convenience. Doesn’t matter if you’re Korean or Asian or Swedish-Irish-Franco American, there’s something apparently relatable about family comedies centered on an immigrant experience. The audience I saw the Taproot production with last weekend adored the hijinks of the Kim family. It felt familiar to them after decades of watching family sitcoms on the boob tube.
I wasn’t such a fan to be honest…traditional family sitcoms really aren’t my thing with their predictable plotting and stereotypical characters and routine situations. In particular, I had issues with the character of Appa, who in the play is physically abusive (it’s revealed, he put his 16 year old son in the hospital after beating him) and prides himself on being able to detect thieves in his store, largely due to racial profiling. These moments in the play didn’t seem cute or funny to me, but actually appalling.
So, not really a champion of this play. I think the production is solid and despite the fact I didn’t care for the character, I very much admired James Yi’s performance as Appa; it’s the most assured and confident performance on that stage. And, the show is blessed with a very realistic convenience store set designed by Mark Lund who also did the sound design. I also liked Obadiah Freeman who had the challenge of playing all 4 visitors to the store including a potential beau for Janet as well as the poor stereotypical Jamaican with the dreds and heavy accent who was, of course, the thief caught by Appa.
But, as I said, audiences seem to adore it. Taproot is apparently selling out many of the performances, so obviously there is a big audience for this kind of humor. The audience on the night I went seemed like your typical Taproot audience (older and very white) but if it’s giving Asian audiences a show to see, then that would be a good thing. It’s important to produce theater for all kinds of audiences while acknowledging that not all theater is going to appeal to every kind of audience.
If you love the TV show, you’ll probably love this play.
Review: THE ARSONISTS by Max Frisch. Translated by Alistair Beaton. Produced by The Horse in Motion. Directed by Bobbin Ramsey. Scenic/lighting/projections Design by Bryce Bartl-Geller and Ryan Dunn. Scenic and Props Design by Mitchell Helton. Costume Design by Jenn Oaster. Sound Design by Alex Potter. With Mario Orallo-Molinaro, Tatiana Pavela, Jordan Moeller, Amber Tanaka, Katherine Bicknell, Kiki Abba, Gabi Arrastia, Adrian Kljucec, Laura Steele, Steven Sterne. May 17 to June 3, 2019 at Gallery Erato/Pioneer Square in Seattle.
The world is on fire in The Horse in Motion’s production of the classic play known variously as The Firebugs, The Fire Raisers or here as, THE ARSONISTS. It’s the work by Swiss playwright Max Frisch that originated as a 1953 radio play before being adapted for the stage in 1958 with further adaptations (by Frisch prior to his death in 1991) and others in various translations including the one used here by Horse in Motion, by Alistair Beaton.
It’s a dark, dark, REALLY dark comedy that teeters on the Absurd, about the gullibility of the common man to be manipulated into supporting evil things…yes, it’s obviously a metaphor for the rise of fascist/oligarchical dictatorships and regimes which largely explains why The Arsonists has had quite a few revivals in the last few years with the increased rise of “Populist” movements that have led to far right extremist governments in Europe, Brazil and obviously here in the United States with the election of the orange imbecile otherwise known as Donald Trump.
In the play, a bourgeois businessman named Biedermann (German for ‘everyman’) blusters his way through life bossing around his wife, maid, underlings and anyone he considers himself to be the superior of…meanwhile, he cowers under anyone who intimidates him intellectually or physically and when a poor but well spoken wrestler named Schmitz comes to his home, Biedermann quickly finds himself offering the stranger a place to stay in his attic despite the fact his city is currently being besieged by mysterious arsonists who infiltrate homes in order to burn them down.
And, it’s very much obvious that Schmitz IS one of the arsonists who quickly begins his plans to make Biedermann’s home the next target. A second arsonist, named Eisenring, gains entrance to the house and the two begin stockpiling oil drums and detonators in the attic with poor old Biedermann actually aiding the pair in their efforts to blow up his home by measuring fuses and ultimately, providing the duo with the matches to begin the inferno.
To add to the surreal nature of the proceedings, the action is all watched over by a Greek style chorus who interact and comment on the scenes taking place and playing small roles of characters within the action of the story. The chorus tries to warn Biedermann of his folly but he’s too caught up in his desperate need to “belong” to something even if that something is the key to his own destruction.
So, The Arsonists isn’t anything like a sitcom or traditional kind of naturalistic dramatic/comedic play. We’re in full blown allegory land of trying to make a point about broader aspects of humanity with absurdist examples of human behavior. It’s a kind of theater not much in favor anymore; modern audiences like their storytelling plain and simple, for the most part and anything out of the ordinary tends to be looked at with great suspicion. But, as a piece of dramatic art, The Arsonists still has merit…it still pulls a “punch” with its absurdist commentary on topics we’re currently experiencing in our everyday Trumpian lives.
The Horse in Motion’s take on the material is solid and uniquely staged in an unusual setting…they’re producing this play in the Gallery Erato in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, the oldest part of Seattle and an apt location to stage this piece. The old brick buildings and the gritty reality of life in that area add a realistic texture to the themes in the play.
It does suffer a bit from feeling a bit overly academic in tone though, a common occurrence when producing older material from a different era in a style of drama not currently in favor. It’s a solid staging from Horse in Motion company member/co-founder Bobbin Ramsey, cleverly utilizing different physical components of the space as playing areas including loft spaces. There’s an engaging but simple use of projections (by Bryce Bartl-Geller and Ryan Dunn) used to track the spread of the fires raging on a map that mimics the actual neighborhood we’re in.
The diverse acting ensemble was also solid though if we’re being frank, while Mario Orallo-Molinaro’s blustery Biedermann was nicely acted, he’s also a bit young (late 20s?) for a role that is more traditionally played by middle aged actors to express the solid blandness and banality of your typical bourgeois “everyman”. Much of the cast does skew a bit younger than normally portrayed which adds to the feeling we’re seeing a collegiate production which doesn’t hurt the themes of the material (after all, the young can succumb to populism as easily as the old…) In addition to Mr. Orallo-Molinaro, I also enjoyed the silly vapidness of Tatiana Pavela as his wife Babette and Amber Tanaka’s frank take on the second Arsonist, Eisenring in a role that’s been gender switched without the slightest harm to the material. It’s a charmingly pragmatic performance.
It’s a brisk 90 minute one act but I mostly enjoyed The Arsonists…it’s a timely take about our “World on Fire”. It’s probably not for the same audiences who might flock to seeing Kim’s Convenience at Taproot or West Side Story at the 5th Avenue Theatre, but for the theater intellectual interested in seeing all kinds of theater, it’s very much worth checking out.