On stage, the true measure of loveJames DePaul takes an eye-opening approach to Shim Chong, the classic Korean tale of filial piety. Under DePaul’s direction, the story becomes a stark postmodern production with references to wireless communication, the division of Korea, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the suicide of a corporate executive.
Often staged as pansori, a traditional form of storytelling, Shim Chong revolves around a daughter who sells herself to seamen as a sacrifice to the gods to quell turbulent waters. The recompense for her selfless act, 300 bags of rice, is to be presented to Buddha to restore her father’s eyesight.
DePaul, who teaches drama at California State University at Northridge, has pieced together a puzzle in this production of “Shim Chong: A Korean Folktale,” which is being staged in English at the Byeroreum Theater in the National Theater of Korea complex until tomorrow. The show premiered earlier this year at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The showing in Korea is the cast’s second run.
In Byeroreum, a small auditorium that seats perhaps 100, the cast of college students and professionals brings together elegantly themes of East and West, new and old. DePaul uses the ensemble like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. Dressed in costumes inspired by hanbok, traditional Korean attire, the ensemble creates motion and drama. DePaul also employs parallel storytelling techniques in which the actors in a scene are separated by an imaginary boundary. The dialogue is so precise that even the breathing is rhythmic. Chan E. Park, an associate professor at Ohio State University and one of two Koreans in the cast, narrates in pansori style, backed by Stephanie Bettman on violin.
As the director, DePaul is integral in more than one way to this production. DePaul was 12 years old when he first heard the story of Shim Chong. He was training for a black belt in jangsudo, a Korean martial art, and his master immersed the students in Korean culture studies. The master asked them to question the importance of Shim Chong as a form of art and the importance of filial piety, specifically, in the martial arts family. When DePaul heard pansori, he connected with its passion, power and suffering. “It moved me like the blues,” he says.
Years later, DePaul, a graduate of Yale’s drama department, moved to Wisconsin, then to Los Angeles. Along the way, he met Bill Walters and Emma Bates and formed Rough Magic, a theatrical ensemble with an international vision. DePaul now teaches drama at Northridge. Between working with Rough Magic and his teaching duties, he often stages performances outside the United States. He is preparing an adaptation of the French play, “La Bas,” that will be staged in Spain next year.
After watching a dress rehearsal of “Shim Chong” earlier this week, a person in the audience pressed DePaul on why he chose to stage this particular production, especially with all the folk tales available in America’s culture chest. His answer to the question: “What’s interesting to me is understanding other people’s stories in other places, not just my culture and cultural references, not just my own stories. We don’t have the luxury of being isolated anymore.”
Later, standing among the cast members who have changed out of costumes designed by Gary Lennon, DePaul says, “It’s irresponsible to think that in a globalized world we can be isolated. We have to be open minded and have open hearts.”
Most of the cast are students at Northridge, but the main characters are professional actors. “I wanted to give my students a chance to learn from masters,” DePaul says. Dana Lee plays the father who eagerly agrees to the offering of 300 rice in exchange for his eyesight. Lee, a Chinese-American, brings a dimension of guilt to his character. “I drew on my own experience as a father of two daughters,” he says. “What would I do in that situation?” Lee has appeared in the movies “Rambo,” “Lethal Weapon 4” and “I Spy.”
Bates approaches her character of Shim Chong with determined but easy grace. “I can understand that feeling of tremendous responsibility, when you feel you have no choice but to do something tremendously frightening,” she says. Bates has appeared in television series such as “NYPD Blue” and “American Dreams” and in plays by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw and Henning Ipsen.
Choi Jin-soo, a senior at Northridge, is the other Korean in the cast. Choi, who emigrated to America when she was in the fourth grade, first heard the story of Shim Chong as a young child. When she auditioned for the ensemble, she knew a trip to Korea was involved. “If I got it, I thought it would be great,” she says.
The play’s references to modernity give it immediacy. At one point, a mobile phone goes off, and the cast takes a break while Lee chats with the caller. Michael Goodfreind appears as the ill-fated scion of the Hyundai family, Chung Mong-hun, dressed in a suit, saying his farewells as Shim Chong says her own goodbyes. Both intone, “I had only hoped to serve my father.”
“The job of an artist is to be conscious of our world and make it relevant to contemporary settings,” DePaul says. In the early stages of the production of this ancient Korean tale, the production team was trying to find an entry point for modern audiences. The juxtaposition of the tragedy of Mr. Chung, who leapt to his death in early August, with Shim Chong’s plunge moved the cast, some to tears. “Chung’s last letters were so intimate and loving to family,” DePaul says. “We’re not attempting to judge or idealize this man. All we are saying is that here was a man or person who loved his family.”
The comparison includes not only their deaths, but also their morality. Heidegger wrote that a person has an inner moral compass that must be followed to achieve authenticity. Shim Chong realizes authenticity despite many obstacles. Mr. Chung took over Hyundai’s projects in North Korea, as he had promised his father, and pursued them even as they floundered in unprofitability.
“When ordinary people find themselves thrust into extraordinary circumstances, what happens? That to me is the essence of drama,” DePaul says.
by Joe Yong-hee
For more information on “Shim Chong: A Korean Folktale,” call (02) 2274-1172, or visit the Web site www.ntok.go.kr. Tickets are 10,000 won ($8.40).