Striking visual imagery and an effective use of traditional Korean musical instruments enliven the kid-friendly presentation of Princess Pyunggang, performed by the Seoul-based Bibimbab Theatre and utilizing both South Korean and U.S.-based performers. Adapted from a traditional Korean fairytale, the musical play is written by Sookyung Hwang—who also plays the show’s title role—with original music by Dalnim Lee.
Following a musical prelude during which Jihwan Choi beats out a complex rhythm on an exceptionally large drum, a voiceover English-language narration introduces the story. Princess Pyunggang, embodied initially by a large puppet similar in style to those used in Bunraku, is prone to fits of crying. To quiet her down, her father the king (Seongtaek Kim) tells her that if she doesn’t stop she’ll be made to marry the much-ridiculed Ondal the Fool (also initially a puppet, and later played by Kyuwan Lee) when she grows up.
Rather than seeing this as a threat, the princess finds comfort in this seeming promise. After she comes of age, she refuses to marry anyone but Ondal, much to the king’s frustration. She sees the potential in her newly wedded husband that no one else does, encouraging him to train as a warrior and teaching him how to read and write.
Lee is fantastic as Ondal, able to provoke laughter with just a slight shift in vocal intonation. He has an expressive face and a gift for physical comedy that shows in his initial interactions with the sword that Pyunggang gives to her mate. As Ondal gains confidence and skill, Lee’s physical demeanor changes as well. A highlight of the production is an acrobatic martial arts routine that he performs to demonstrate his character’s complete transformation.
Hwang does a fine job as the show’s strong-willed heroine. Her singing voice has a pleasant quality even if her articulation is not always the most comprehensible. Additionally, the pop ballads that make up the bulk of the show’s original score are not particularly memorable. Technical difficulties at the performance I attended also made it difficult to hear the performers’ voices over the pre-recorded soundtrack.
The music that is played live is of much higher quality. At one point, Choi is joined by two other performers for another fantastic drumming sequence. A fourth performer is added into the percussion section during the show’s rousing curtain call. The show also incorporates a terrific performance by Yoon Sook Park, president of the New York Korean Traditional Music and Dance Institute, who plays the kayagum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument.
Projections are occasionally used to depict the various locales called for in the script. Some of these are rather poorly rendered, while others are quite remarkable. The best is a black and white video sequence of shadow warriors that Ondal—now a mighty general—fights during the show’s climactic battle. As he strikes out with his sword, the shadows burst into pieces prior to another opponent materializing to attack him.
The majority of the show is performed in English, although some audience members may still miss a few details due to the performers’ accents. But even if you don’t catch every word, the basic narrative is clear and director Jongyeoup Lee and choreographer Yusan Kang (also one of the performers) create a few engaging movement sequences that do not rely on language. I was particularly enthralled by a stylized funeral procession that comes towards the play’s conclusion.
Princess Pyunggang, part of the New York International Fringe Festival, performs at Sheen Center – The Loretto (18 Bleecker Street) through August 17. Tickets are $18 in advance, $24 at the door. The show plays a variable schedule. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/BibimbabTheatre or www.fringenyc.org.
For more of my FringeNYC coverage, also check out my list of shows with Asian or Asian American connections and reviews of Nisei and Forgetting the Details on this blog, my preview of LGBT-inclusive works that I wrote for GLAAD, and my NiteLife Exchange reviews of MANish BOY, No One Asked Me, Bedroom Secrets, and Joel Creasey: Rock God.