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Director James DePaul gives a classical Korean folktale a contemporary makeover in a performance that fuses traditional and modern elements
The room was quiet and dark. Suddenly the sounds of stomping feet could be heard as 10 soldier-like figures marched down the aisles, carrying wooden sticks that resembled guns. Looking more like a scene out of a war narrative, this setting seemed an unlikely introduction to the classical story of Shim Ch'ong. But such was the case at the performance of "Shim Ch'ong: A Korean Folktale" held at the J. Paul Getty Center on October 24 and 25.
Shim Ch'ong is generally told as a p'ansori song, the epic-narrative singing tradition of Korea. Influenced by the Confucian ideal of filial piety, Shim Ch'ong is a story about a daughter who sacrifices herself in exchange for the restoration of her blind father's eyesight. Touched by such pious actions, the gods resurrect her and she becomes queen. Afterwards, she sets out to find her father amongst the blind men of the kingdom. After a long search, father and daughter are reunited.
Even though the folktale is rooted in Korean culture, this particular retelling of it was not. In this production, director James DePaul attempted to expand the story beyond the Korean context to include all races and ethnicities. Instead of presenting it in a purely traditional manner, DePaul reinterpreted the story while adding a modern twist. The final product was a performance that exhibited both eastern and western theatrical traditions.
Led by the renowned p'ansori artist Chan Park, the multi-ethnic cast embarked on the telling of the revamped version of Shim Ch'ong. Even though there was no official background, the cast made up for this through the creative use of props where sticks were transformed into guns and boxes into ships. The use of lighting and multimedia also enhanced the effects while the sounds of Stephanie Bettman's violin provided the background music.
The whole performance was a fusion of modern and traditional elements. Dressed in contemporary clothing, the cast was quite a contrast to Park's white hanbok (traditional Korean dress). Spurts of techno and ballroom music intermingled with Chan's rhythmic drumming and singing of p'ansori. Initially expecting a clash, these seemingly contradicting elements were woven seamlessly into the production.
"The director wanted to allude to the old and the new to show that no matter how modern you are, you can't abandon tradition," said Dana Lee, who played the role of Shim Ch'ong's blind father.
Deserving even more merit than the performance itself is the underlying social message that this production sought to send. The director and cast did not want to present Shim Ch'ong as just another retelling of an ancient Korean story, but to identify its application and importance in modern society, especially after the events of 9/11.
Throughout the performance, references were made to President Bush, the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the recently deceased Chong Mong-hon, and the texts of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Martin Heidegger. These allusions served as constant reminders that we are all linked together in a globalized world, and we have to unite if we are to live in harmony. This becomes particularly meaningful in the call for the unification of North and South Korea.
"If the older generation can see, then maybe there can be a connection between North and South Korea," said Lee.
All in all, the performance sought to bridge the gaps between different people, places, and time.
The performance of Shim Ch'ong was a co-production of the Theatre Department of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), and the Korean Cultural Center. The story was adapted by Doug Kaback, and based on Marshal Pihl's English translation of the p'ansori song.
Date Posted: 11/7/2003