by Martha Wade Steketee
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic narrative poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie from 1847 (yes, I looked it up) muses poetically on the serious topics of separated lovers and the expulsion of the French from the expansive New France colony Acadia that straddled parts of modern day Canada and the United States. The performance piece Remembering Evangeline, currently running in the SubletSeries at HERE, takes from this verse romance the original poem’s geographic sweep, twists the original story of separated lovers who seek each other from French Canada to Louisiana to the Ozarks to Philadelphia, and creates a Madama Butterfly kind of story of a child born out of a Korean war dalliance who then seeks an American father she never knew.
Remembering Evangeline, written and directed by Renee Philipp, begins gradually, proceeds in elegant movements, offers images and intriguing visual and aural juxtapositions, and lands 60 minutes later suggesting a journey of sorts, and loads of textual questions. Why make this titular reach to an epic poem concerning two separated lovers on a single continent when the story you’re telling is expanded to an international, war-influenced story involving a daughter and rejection of culture and loads of other stories?
We begin with house lights up and a man in a white coat hanging sheets, arranging ropes, assembling layers of fabric that could be mountains and eventually serve as projection surfaces, telling his mother on the phone (and therefore us) that the piece he is preparing with some frustration—there’s kicking of stage detritus and pulling down of set pieces—is an homage to Longfellow’s poem. This announcement serves as a dramaturgical marker to those who recall reading this play in high school or college, but this literature major didn’t and the reference didn’t land. Why not allow us to discover the homage, to feel the story that exists on its own merits? There could be sufficient story to feel, without footnotes.
Carlo Adinolfi is our man in the white coat, who becomes John, an American serviceman who impregnates a Japanese woman Eunji (Sook Kim) in Korea, who has a child Mariko (Eun Sung Lee), who is raised in Korea and talks about rejecting her Japanese heritage. Teenage daughter seeks father, mother seeks daughter’s love, and much of the exposition of the story transpires in projected English supertitles of dialogue in Korean and Japanese. Confused yet? I was, plotwise.
There are serpent costumes and sequences evoking fishing boats, and characters wandering in and around the draped swaths of fabric—providing confusing narrative through lines as well as occasional evocative visual moments. A sequence with the promise to provide both intriguing visuals and interesting plotting involves mother Eunji calling to her dominating off-stage elderly father, who we gradually learn insisted that she relinquish her daughter Mariko when she was born out of wedlock. We see a rebellious teenaged daughter, communicating long distance with mother over the phone (or was it letters at this point), who is more interested in her absent father than her wounded mother. Mother Eunji’s focus on a birthday party for the young child of a friend resonates intensely when her backstory of being forced to give up her own child is revealed; but this lovely layer of the story is rushed through, into another call across the sea or a karaoke sequence. Sections resonate but all the plot pieces don’t quite cohere.
Our multi-layered world was crafted by multi-layered theater makers—the playbill includes personnel remarkably resistant to categorical limitations. Renee Philipp writes and directs. Carlo Adinolfi designs and performs. Sook Kim and Eun Sung Lee choreograph and perform. The visual images Adinolfi creates, lighting by Casey McLain that is crafted in and around and through the simple set, sound by Eric Nightengale evokes seascapes and modern musical with aplomb (though a body mic was problematic at my performance), and flexible and simple costumes by Maria Grande are lovely and flow delightfully with the dancers’ bodies.
Philippi’s writing (and Longfellow’s words on occasion), as spoken and as spooled as projections across the hung drapery, offers loads of possibly meanings to most of the brief adventure. Choreographed moments are striking and worth the price of admission. The frame that holds the pieces together, however, feels jerry-rigged rather than emotionally true.
Remembering Evangeline. Through June 17, 2017. Concrete Temple Theatre at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue). Running time 60 minutes with no intermission. www.concretetempletheatre.com/new/remembering-evangeline
Photos: Stefan Hagen