As I sat in the quaint little theatre, occupying one of maybe fifty or sixty seats, I began to set my expectations. I had only become familiar with Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play The Glass Menagerie the night before, and the performance was to be in Korean, a language I speak with all the skill of an infant. The stage is set: There are no curtains, just an arrangement of furniture placed deliberately about the stage. I nervously flipped through a printout of the play I had brought along, trying to gauge the length of the performance. Music begins to swell. The lights dim. The spotlight shines. The play begins.
This is something that I would experience a second time, with the worrying before the first performance being replaced by pure excitement and anticipation for the second. I am not a professional critic; it was entirely my choice to attend a second time. To say that the performance captivated me would be a criminal understating. To be enchanted by something crossing the two-hour mark in an unfamiliar language, devoid of the comforting distractions of editing and special effects that afford film and television much of its interest, is simply monumental.
The venue’s, and therefore the stage’s, modesty, which had me worried thanks to my conditioning by the more dynamic art of cinema, was actually integrated beautifully into the piece not only in terms of subject matter, as the play is set in an apartment on a blue-collar low-income housing complex, but also in tone and scope. The tight quarters replicated the claustrophobic life of small rooms with thin walls beautifully, as no matter where one hides, they cannot escape the happenings of the flat. This is further reinforced by doing away altogether with the walls of each room, where the dining room seeps into the living room which seeps into the office and the alley and the fire escape. The single door leads only on stage or off. This also replicates memory, removing unimportant and mundane elements of the scene like walls and doors, emphasizing and exaggerating what the memory most acutely would. This is further demonstrated by the surreal lack of props in some instances, like eating a dinner at an empty table. Who remembers what they ate when they had an important quarrel? This allows the players to move more freely across time and space, as if it was another dimension to their performance.
It would seem logical to include the lighting in the description of the stage, but this masterfully executed illumination deserves its own, personal preaching. The lights in this piece serve not as illuminators to the stage, but rather as guides through memory, as a focal point to the actions and their consequences. The action may be dimmed while a seemingly unrelated event takes place in another “room,” the background color may evolve with a swell of emotions, the fades indicating the passing of time with welcome dynamicity. The only light that remains constant is that of the glass menagerie, central to the play while being seemingly disconnected from the action. The light play especially improved on the final night of the play, with a strong emphasis on shadows and movement, which was an unexpected pleasure for the second viewing.
First to come on stage is Kwak Ha-eun, who plays Tom, the narrator and Tennessee Williams surrogate, bringing a cool masculine machismo that thinly veils an explosive passion and anger, with a transforming femininity that transforms the role beyond the possibilities that could be achieved with a male performer. The energetic portrayal, with its go-for-broke attitude that sees Kwak breathlessly throwing herself around the scene and really own her scenes, had me in shivers. Whenever she was on stage, I forgot that I could not understand what was being said. The rawness of the performance and the wildness of the movement, signs of a character at the end of their rope, was a sight to behold.
Lee Do-heun plays Amanda, the nagging, conceited and conniving mother character, with such grace and clarity, a clear example of pure understanding of the character. Watching her throw herself melodramatically around the scene, where every movement and utterance oozes of vanity and ulterior motives, only ever breaking to gawk at a picture of the husband who abandoned her (hilariously portrayed as Tennessee Williams in this version). She had the crowd erupting with laughter, with such a strong presence to steal every scene, as it was intended of her character, and makes it look easy. Standing toe to toe with Kwak’s powerful performance would intimidate a lesser performer, but she rises to the occasion and creates a competitive chemistry so befitting to the play, I could not imagine another performer in the role.
Then comes a very different performance from Lee Ji-hye, who plays the mousy, omnipresent Laura, daughter of Amanda and sister to Tom. A quiet type in a world of thunderous voices, Lee plays Laura so perfectly that I fear she may not get as much praise as she deserves. She often disappears into the scenery, speaks quietly and with a disconnect and day-dreamy demeanor suited to the character, lost in her own world while still sadly aware of her situation. The subtlety is so contrasting to the other performances, with no great melodramatic monologue or explosive argument to show off, that it would be easy to overlook, speaking to the strength and humility of Lee’s performance. It is not to be overlooked, and will not be forgotten.
Last but certainly not least, the performer portraying Jim, an easy-going former high-school hero looking to charm his way ahead in life, wished to remain anonymous, in what I can only call pure performance humility. The actress was overflowing with the charm found in Williams’ script, in a much cooler and tempered performance filled with humor and a very welcome sense of joy not found in the other characters. Jim takes night classes in public speaking, and the portrayal humorously embodies this trait by making it seem as if Jim is constantly practicing, never really genuine but rather opportunistic. This disconnect is beautifully contrasted by Lee’s purity and otherworldly spiritualism, and their chemistry is some of the best I’ve seen.
The Roles of Women
It is interesting to note the added dimensions of seeing this play with an all-female cast, including the male roles, a wonderful contrast to the classic days of theatres, where a woman on stage was considered a punishable offense. The added sensitivity and femininity to the male characters, and the dynamics it created with their interactions, brought forth something unique to this performance, a little something extra that added charm and intensity to the already tense material, all the more interesting for it.
As I stated earlier, I am not a professional critic. The script itself is another worthy topic of discussion, one that I could not do justice here. This piece comes from the pure energy I experienced as a spectator of something truly special, augmented by the clear evolution of the players and the scene from opening night to the final performance. Everybody involved in the piece took their modest means in budget and time and gave it their all, to spectacular results that I was lucky enough to witness. These players deserve to be seen, and I look forward to seeing whatever comes next.
“I’ll rise,” says Kwak’s Tom, “but I won’t shine.”
This could not be further from the truth.