ART's "Endlings": Be Careful What You Fish For

Jiehae Park & Wai Ching Ho in "Endlings"
(photo: Gretjien Helene)

Endlings, the current offering by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, is quite a theatrical event. Written by Celine Song and Directed by Sammi Cannold, featuring females in the lead roles, it fulfills yet another goal of ART to present opportunities both on stage and off for women in theater. For the record, the title refers to “a plural noun signifying the last known individual of a species”. This story takes place in Korea as well as the U.S. (and what could be more contemporary?). On the Korean Island of Man-Jae live three elderly haenyeos or sea women, who spend their days diving beneath the sea in order to harvest seafood. They are acutely aware that theirs is a vanishing world, as there are no heirs to this millenia-old way of life. They are in a literal as well as a figurative sense, spending their dying days diving. Their names are Han Sol (Wai Ching Ho), in her 90's, Go Min (Emily Kuroda), in her 80's, and Sook Ja (Jo Yang), in her 70's. But the ocean they inhabit will be revealed as more metaphor than play.

Emily Kuroda, Wai Ching Ho & Jo Yang in "Endlings"
(photo: Gretjien Helene)

The first act primarily consists of these women's verbal interactions, a good many of them on the level of television sitcoms, and an overly long monologue by Ha Young, a Korean-Canadian-American playwright, twice an immigrant (Jiehae Park), which takes place in Manhattan. She feels pressured to write about her identity. The challenge is how to do so without “selling her own skin”, as it were, but recognizing the inevitability of changing. But the author has other fish to fry; she's painfully aware, as stated in the program, that “real estate determines our possibilities”. To her, migration means one will never be the same again. When expressed with broad humor, it becomes “realty television”. In attempting to write as a non-white non-male, she's fighting a difficult battle against the tide.

The production (one hesitates to call it a play in any sense of the word) is visually stunning but emotionally uninvolving. Song writes beautifully when she has serious points to make, but it
meta-morphs into more of a performance piece than a play. She evidences raw power and fearless ferocity, albeit rife with aphorisms almost totally lacking in subtlety. For example, in the second act there occurs a sudden disjointed vaudeville-like routine by four White Stage Managers (Keith Michael Pinault, Matt DaSilva, Andy Paterson, and Mark Mauriello, the last also occasionally playing a Turtle), all speaking by using the word “white” in place of appropriate adjectives, nouns and verbs, making Song's point redundant. There are also several black-out scenes featuring a bit of banter with Young's White Husband (Miles G. Jackson) whose mysogynistic disdain is palpable, except to him. There are even a couple of brief scenes depicting oysters discussing the pain involved in overcoming a grain of sand and incidentally producing a pearl in the process. The playwright has a good deal to convey, but goes to the same well too often; in the end, it's rather like beating a dead fish.

Jo Yang in "Endlings"
(photo: Gretjien Helene)

The piece is superbly played by all of the cast, while the direction is inspired. And speaking of those visuals, the Costume Design by Linda Cho, Lighting Design by Bradley King, and Sound Design by Elisheba Ittoop are all crucial creative elements that enhance the story even as they threaten to overwhelm it. It's the eye-popping Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood, however, that most vividly projects the bizarre imagination of this gifted playwright, as he utilizes a real water tank, gradually revealed by moving panels, to simulate the ocean depths.
The work needs kelp. Right now (through March 17th) it's more of a “beginling”. One hopes this writer keeps on imagining, keeps on fighting, and keeps on writing. In these days of rule by real estate moguls, maybe the playwright is offering more subtlety than is first apparent. If one dives beneath the surface of her work, there is definitely a gestating pearl. If only we will allow her to exist.

No comments:

Post a Comment