By Kevin Zimmerman
For the inaugural Korean Theatre Festival in New York 10 years ago, founder Du-Yee Chang performed an original one-man show based on one of Franz Kafka’s novels.
Next week Chang, along with 16 other performers from various Seoul theater companies, descend on The Secret Theatre in Long Island City to stage three plays as part of the fourth edition of the festival dedicated to Korean theater.
Chang sees the event as a sort of cultural exchange to introduce American audiences to traditional Korean theater.
“It is very similar to Japanese and Chinese theater forms,” Chang said. “There is dance movement and also singing. The stories are sometimes symbolic and usually based on traditional lore.”
Korean drama did not go through the realism period — which emphasized everyday situations, ordinary speech and realistic settings — that reinvented Western theater in the late 19th century.
That is not to say that Korean theater is all mysticism and allegorical stories.
Just as Chang created an adaptation of Kafka’s work, other Korean theater companies perform Western works, but with a decidedly Seoul-centric point of view.
“When we do a Shakespeare play, we are not doing it in an Elizabethan style,” Chang said. “We transform it so Korean audiences can feel familiar with it. It is sort of like how in America, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ became ‘West Side Story.’”
No large-scale musicals are on tap for this year’s festival, but Chang said the three plays scheduled show the variety of what is happening in Korean theater.
“Counselor,” written and directed by Hyun Suk Cha, revolves around the owner of a coffee shop, who offers advice to emotionally and mentally wounded patrons, but who has no memory of his own past.
“This is a very modern Korean play,” Chang said. “It is really an interesting psychological drama — like a Harold Pinter play.”
In “The Genius Magician, Young-Sil Chang,” conceived by and starring Hyun Jin Ham, a young magician is the reincarnation of a genius inventor from the 15th-century Chosun Dynasty.
Living in a beautiful fictional world, the young magician uses his powers to fight villains set on destroying nature.
Both plays will be performed with supertitles displaying English translations of the dialogue.
Although “Same Story, Different Day,” a piece written to mark the 65th anniversary of the Korean War, will be performed without titles, Chang believes the story will be understood by English-speaking audience members with its use of movement and pantomime.
“It is a very sad story, but also very comic,” Chang said. “It is a very important subject for us. We are still separated.”
Although Korean ex-patriots are most likely to attend the festival, Chang hopes to reach plenty of American theatergoers as well.
“We are aiming for both,” he said. “For New Yorkers, these are good plays for theater performances. Korean theater can introduce a different dimension or style.”
If you Go
Korean Theatre Festival in New York
When: June 29 through July 3
Where: The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City
Cost: $10/general, $7/seniors and students
Contact: (718) 392-0722