2010 Travel Diary #9: MISO at the Chongdong Theatre

Sunday 2 May 2010. Korea is known for its high-energy stage shows. They have a huge international appeal. Shows like Nanta and Jump perform to enthusiastic audiences everywhere, combining acrobatics, humour, music and maybe some traditional culture – though dressed-up in an accessible way. A feature of the shows is that they are largely non-verbal (no surtitles are needed to transport the show and enable a foreign audience to enjoy it); they encourage audience participation; and they are not dependent on a complex plot. The emphasis is more on the action and humour. But though accessible to an international audience, the shows have roots in Korean recent popular culture: martial arts in the case of Jump, drumming and cooking in the case of Nanta, and breakdancing in the case of Break Out.

This is, in part, the market which Miso (“Beautiful Smile”) is aiming to please, and many of the elements of these popular shows find their way into the current incarnation of the long-running production at the Chongdong theatre. But Miso also aims to include slightly heavier traditional cultural content into the mix.

The show is structured around the story of Chunhyang, probably the best-known of traditional Korean stories, or at least the best-known of those that have entered the Pansori canon. A story of love and devotion, of Confucian loyalty, and of triumph of good over evil: it even has a happy ending. The costumes worn by the cast are traditional hanbok, and the musicians, all playing traditional instruments, are in a balcony erected high up on each side of the stage.

While live traditional instruments predominate in the show’s musical score, there is also a certain amount of pre-recorded support from more modern, synthesized sounds: the score is a mix of traditional music sweetened with fusion sounds. There’s a good variety of traditional style dances and acts, from the fan dance and buddhist-style drumming to the nongak farmers’ dance to samulnori beats.

Those who expect a bit of audience participation from a Korean stage show will not be disappointed. Somehow the production manages to work in some entertainers who divide the audience into two halves for the usual competition for who can cheer loudest; and as usual a couple of audience members are dragged on stage to provide a bit of further entertainment, this time to engage in a bit of plate-spinning. This section of the performance provides a lightweight interlude between the elements of the traditional Chunhyang story.

The show starts with a ritual for peace and prosperity, and the production manages to work in not just some celebrations for Danoje (the spring festival that falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month) but also a quick shamanistic exorcism. Some more traditional springtime activities follow – some ssireum wrestling and playing on the swing. Next, a springtime dance followed by a five-drum dance based on Buddhist ritual: all very colourful. Mongryong and Chunhyang fall in love while all this is going on, but of course Mongryong has to leave to go to Seoul. The local magistrate has a banquet which is an opportunity to have a traditional fan dance and a sword dance. Chunhyang resists his advances and is thrown in prison. Mongryong returns and everyone lives happily ever after, giving an excuse for some jolly nonggak ribbon-dances. It’s non-stop action, with plenty of variety, and on the Sunday afternoon we were there it was playing to a packed house. Somehow, though, it left me less than satisfied.

Those who want an easy-to-digest collection of traditional Korean music and dance in a reasonably pure form should go the performances at Korea House. Those who are less concerned with authenticity, and prefer a bit of colour, entertainment and fusion, while being introduced to one of Korea’s most enduring folk tales, will be very happy at Miso.

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