Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors: Hannah and the Dread Gazebo Tackles Family Life on the North Korean Border
America has now been at war for decades, and in various degrees of conflict with other nations in the rare moments our boots remain off the ground. But for most Americans, living in a giant country bordered by oceans instead of countries with generations-long blood-feuds, war is an abstraction, something we see on TV, or hear friends shouting about, not something we live with right outside our window every day.
The frustrations of visibly looming armed conflict are the topic addressed by Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, a new play by Jiehae Park that opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on March 29.
And though it’s a topic rife for epic drama, Park’s play isn’t the standard tragedy-pageant, but a biting comedy exploring the total absurdity of life during wartime.
Hannah, a South Korean medical student in America, gets word that her grandmother may have committed suicide by jumping off the roof of her retirement home. There’s just one catch: she jumped over the militarized border into North Korea, so there’s no way to be sure she died, or retrieve her body for burial or medical care as anyone crossing the border will be shot (possibly triggering World War III in the process), and would be walking into a minefield even if they could get across. All Hannah’s family can do is engage in a Godot-length wait for the dueling propaganda machines of the South and North Korean militaries to quit giving them the runaround.
Hannah’s mother, deeply depressed, copes by ordering garden furniture online. Her brother stalks the subways, searching for a homeless man he met once. Her father bathes in denial as his wife goes mad, and he gets shuffled from official to official, each less helpful than the last.
All they can do is wait, pondering the mystery of their grandmother’s final letter, and what it has to do with a myth about Korea’s origins.
And that wait is hilarious, thanks in large part to the nimble comedic chops of Jessica Ko, who moves seamlessly between the role of every foil the family faces, from nurses, to clerks, to a South Korean army officer convinced Hannah’s grandmother was a spy, as well as Hannah’s brother, Dang’s (Sean Jones) frustrated exploration of his ethnic identity in a place where he’s totally creeped out by the fact that everyone looks like him.
If the play has a shortcoming, it’s that by design, the story is somewhat unresolvable as there is no way to retrieve the grandmother’s body. But rather than being left open-ended, the plot is effectively concluded through its characters each finding their own way to reconcile themselves to that ambiguity.
Unlike last year’s hit, Vietgone, which explored the family story of refugees from the Vietnam war, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo isn’t much concerned with history, or altering perspectives on it. It’s practically a sitcom, with an average nuclear family just trying to navigate the ridiculous speedbumps of the world around them. It’s fun, it’s bizarrely heartwarming, and every member of the cast is solid. Between those factors and its being presented in one stretch sans intermission, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo is theater willing to come off its high horse and just be good, solid entertainment that also happens to be a window into a world in which we don’t live, but can see our lives reflected in.
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo
1:30 and 8 pm, through October 28
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer Street, Ashland
$30 – $102