By Marcina Zaccaria . . .

ONCE UPON A (Korean) TIME has an explosive beginning, with the sound of bombs bursting, almost shaking the theater.  We listen deeply to men screaming while crouched low, recognizing that flames can ignite at any moment, offering miles and miles of grey instead of gold or violet. 

Acceptance is a long road.  Time has its own measure expanding backwards and forwards over the years.  Each chapter accumulates differently.  Equipping actors Sonnie Brown, Sasha Diamond, David Lee Huynh, Teresa Avia, Lim Jon, Norman Schneider, David Shih, and Jillian Sun as storytellers, Playwright Daniel K. Isaac sends them on the longer roads, directed by Ralph B. Peña, and is sensitive to developing cadence in the language that cuts through rather than caresses the words.  Colloquial speech is mixed with heightened verse.  By the end of the production, you will love myth.  You will remember war.  And you will appreciate the possibility of seeing a gate beyond the doldrums of your life to find a more transcendent and victorious future.

What’s dazzling are the computer-generated effects that contribute to the magic of the production.  Projection Designer Yee Eun Nam fills the stage with hundreds of fish, flying turtles, and finally a powerful tiger.  It conjures a sense of majesty.  Though there is very little singing, there is great poetry in song and dance in the middle section when a mermaid figure enters through the curtains to take center stage.  Puppet birds fly from the rafters, bubbles extend to an aquarium-like stage, and handcrafted masks of a bear and tiger inspire wonder, evoking the deep power of myth.

Throughout the performance, Ma-Yi has really pulled out all the stops, while never undervaluing the intelligence of the average viewer.  The theater company allows contemporary moments to challenge the psyche.  Jumping into the present with a fierce musical beat, we find a fundamental alienation pattern in Los Angeles, where an older female deli owner confronts a young woman in an Atari T-shirt.  This distance is frustrating before it becomes dangerous, and smoke fills the stage.

In the last chapter, on a glorious mountain range, a family with children are featured while friends speak about their new meetings on the horizon.  With a glimpse of an inclusive modern family life that looks to the past while sharing earnestly about the present, this time recognizes the joy in having a newborn and the strength in defining one’s middle age years.  Such a moment asks you to reach deeper into your soul and appreciate an enduring sense of community.

ONCE UPON A (korean) TIME is playing until Sept. 18 at La MaMa, located at 66 E. 4th Street in NYC. Run Time 1 hr 35 min.

Photos: Richard Termine