By Shelley A. Sackett
According to Genesis, the Babylonians wanted to make a name for themselves by building a mighty city and a tower with its top in the heavens. God disrupted the work by so confusing the workers’ language that they could no longer understand one another. The city was never completed, and the people were dispersed over the face of the earth.
Playwright and native South Korean Hansol Jung’s impressive play “Wild Goose Dreams” examines the modern-day Tower of Babel known as the internet, a global nation where algorithms create a universal language that renders its human users more disconnected than connected.
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, it runs through April 8 at Calderwood Pavillion in Boston.
Set in contemporary Seoul, the plot follows the romance between a married South Korean man, Guk Minsung (Jeffrey Song), and Yoo Nanhee (a terrific Eunji Lim), a North Korean defector. They both travel with more than carry-on baggage.
Minsung is a “goose father,” the label given to a man who stays and works in South Korea while his family lives in an English-speaking country. Because South Korea values fluency in English (and because its education system is fiercely competitive), they are assured a better life when they return. Like their migrating namesakes, these fathers sacrifice for the sake of their offspring, sending money but rarely getting to see them. Minsung’s only means of contact with his wife and daughter are his cellphone and Facebook, and he longs for an-person visit.
Like Minsung, Nanhee is lonely, disoriented and (literally) haunted by the family she lives without. Four years ago, she suddenly and without notice left North Korea and her father (an amusing John D. Haggerty). She too was in search of a better life than she could ever have in that impoverished, repressive place. Her flight was full of peril and trauma; guilt and fear still preoccupy her thoughts and dreams. She sends her father money that she doesn’t know if he receives. He appears to her daily, a ghost-like companion invisible to anyone else.
Paralyzed by second-guessing the choices they made, they are isolated and numb. Theirs will be a textbook love story for the modern, dysfunctional age.
Both turn to the internet and online dating for comfort and connection, and depicting that world is where “Wild Goose Dreams” breaks bold new theatrical ground.
Jung’s intrusive and omnipresent cyberspace is portrayed by director Seonjae Kim as a lively, noisy Greek chorus of wild characters who chant and mime the equivalents of cellphone ringing, emojis and various internet functions (reboot is a stitch!). The costumes, sound effects and choreography are dizzying.
On its surface, this parallel universe is eye candy, entertaining and fun. Yet, just like the “real” internet, it smothers and disrupts, ultimately blurring the thinning line between virtual and actual realms, between fantasy and reality.
Amidst this relentless and chaotic cacophony of popups, “what’s on your mind?” and other distractions, Nanhee (screen name Miner’s Daughter) and Minsung (Gooseman) meet. Though they technically speak the same language, they bring different cultural contexts which Jung uses for both empathic and comic purpose. “Is that a joke?” each asks frequently, followed by “Is it a North/South Korean joke?”
Like post-Tower of Babel Babylonians, these two live in a diaspora where babble is the mother tongue.
While staggering in its imagination, creativity and craftsmanship, Jung’s play is not just humor, gimmickry and ingenuity. Below the surface, the gifted playwright skillfully tackles the broader issues of the genuine and overwhelming challenges we face living in a world of generational, cultural and technological disconnects.
Jung cleverly uses a fairy tale to link the various themes and plotlines. The play opens on a simple set with a storyteller (Nanhee’s father) telling his daughter a bedtime tale about an angel who loses the ability to fly and falls in love with a human. Later, the angel must choose between staying on earth with her lover or regaining her power of flight. These forked paths of freedom or family, taking flight or remaining grounded, will show up for the rest of the play. The personal toll they exact from Nanhee and Minsung shape their relationship and its unforeseen conclusion.
Although the play briefly stalls at an hour (at one hour and forty minutes, it could benefit from an intermission or shortening or both), “Wild Goose Dreams” is nonetheless one of the most exciting, out-of-the-box, charming and well-produced pieces of theater to hit Boston this season. Check it out and enjoy the guaranteed post-theater conversation.
For tickets and information, go to https://speakeasystage.com/.