The People of the Underground – WTF (World Theatre Festival)
I knew I was in for a good night when a theatre-saturated girlfriend of mine (works in the arts) claimed that ‘Underground is the best show EVER!’ I didn’t know a lot about the plot beforehand, only that it was set in a pop-up Korean speak-easy where you could actually purchase drinks and be a part of the performance, so to speak.
Ultra-contemporary, Underground was first performed at Metro Arts, Brisbane, in 2011, by Motherboard Productions. It seems to have since created a cult following, and many who attended had already seen it two, three, or four times, so I was excited to witness what the entire rave was about.
The theme was set from the moment of entrance through the Turbine Studio loading dock at Brisbane’s Powerhouse, and ticket holders were ‘stamped’ as if entering a nightclub. Looking around, it was hard to believe bump in was only a couple of weeks ago; the set design is so intricate you’d think the bar had been there for years. Korean memorabilia and underwater trinkets decked out the walls, netting covered the roof, photos plastered the bar, and the lounges and seats were set towards the main stage with instruments, microphones, and music decks. The vibe was grungy and cool.
Bubbly bar manager Minyo (Chunnum Lee) warmly welcomed the audience, and directed us to the bar where the show’s producer (Dave Sleswick) served us up Soju (popular Korean rice wine). The actors were mingling with the audience, but if you watched closely enough, their own stories and connections with one another were being developed. We sat and watched as Drew (Abe Mitchell) tried to talk to a disinterested Minyo, and then went on to dedicate a song to her (a fantastic singer by the way).
The narrative of the story is an account of Sajangnim’s (Hoyoung Tak) past. Tales of the Coconut Princess (humorously played by director and co-writer, Jeremy Neideck), his first love (Younghee Park) and his journey through the sea to the city with the sailor (Abe Mitchell) are told through the medium of the other actors in the form of theatre, music, sound and visual effects. Minyo narrates the story in Korean, which is then translated in English by DJ and Sound Engineer, Thom Browning (Browning is to be credited for the electrifying sounds created throughout the show).
It’s difficult to pick out individual performers, because honestly all the actors stood out. The show has a very collaborative feel and this cast is clearly a ‘family’ who believes in the message of the piece and delivers it passionately. Younghee Park’s performance of Underground was enchanting. She is an extremely talented actor, singer and drummer. Nathan Stoneham was fabulous as Jinhee (his performance in the show’s second last song will bring joy to the most stone-hearted). All the actors were talented and contributed to the shows smooth sailing, and often interchanged between acting, singing, playing instruments, production crew, and crowd interaction (and at one point, depicting sea creatures with kitchen utensils).
There is something so sad but uplifting about this performance. Its lighthearted approach and cheesy humor bring with it an air of innocence that smoothly delivers you through the themes of love, loss and connection. From badly played flute songs to transcendent affection, watermelon parties to shots of Soju, Underground whelms in you in a perfect balance of sorrow and joy. The collective nature of the show went beyond just the cast and crew and dipped into the themes, uniting Australia and Korea, gender and acceptance, culture and love. And, I got to do a shot of Soju with Sajangnim!
Director Jeremy Neideck and co-writer Nathan Stoneham have put their all into this creation. Neideck says that at Underground’s core
‘…are the very real experiences of Nathan Stoneham and I. We have spent much of the last seven years crossing paths between Australia, Korea, Japan, Tonga, the US…Sometimes lovers, sometimes friends, but always deeply and intimately connected, we wanted to find a way to communicate the feeling of our adventures together rather than telling it in autobiographical detail’.
And that’s what Underground is; a mish-mash of surreal storytelling, with a very real and emotion-filled core.
It’s running at this year’s World Theatre Festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse until 23 February, and given its popularity and growing fan base, the tour will continue. After attending Wednesday night’s show, in true Underground style, I booked again for Friday. I urge you as well to go on the journey.