Wandering deep beneath St. Paul’s stunning Hamm Building, past the glowing neon sign for the subterranean Vieux Carre jazz club, you might begin to wonder if you’ve traveled too far.
Can there be anything else down here?
St. Paul has been making good use of its basements lately (Green Lantern, 12welve Eyes, et al), and the Park Square Theater’s Andy Boss Thrust Stage, the theater’s second stage and sister to the Proscenium upstairs, is probably the best. The elegant and sleek lobby bar will remove any thought of the space as a dingy, dark, unused corner of a 100-year-old St. Paul landmark.
And the stage itself? One-of-a-kind.
Their current show, put on by the fantastic Theater Mu, is proof of this. For those who don’t respect or understand the role of small theater in society, especially in a dynamic Twin Cities landscape that boasts the Guthrie, Ordway, Pantages, etc, haven’t been to a staging at the Park Square: The energy and creativity that comes from smaller spaces and smaller budgets reminds us what theater is really all about – the actors are so close by you can almost smell their perfume, making the performances that much more intimate. There are no second takes, and there are no blockbuster effects or Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics to distract you from pure, honest acting and storytelling. It’s the writing and dialogue, and ultimately the actors delivering it, that wow in ways often lost in over-the-top Broadway-style productions.
Side note: A staging of Macbeth in 2016 was equally impressive – the expressionist themes as the king slips deeper into madness, captured with nothing but a few screens and mirrors alongside the lead actor, were brilliant.
Calling all drama addicts
“A Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity” is a piece that puts on full display that creative energy, and elevates a small production to new heights (though, yes, it does take place below ground). Working with only a few props (the nimble stagehands deserve a round of applause as well), the show manages to unpack not only the way relationships have evolved in 2018, but themes of culture and tradition, the Hmong diaspora and presence in St. Paul, and the struggle of being an “outsider” in a still-prejudiced society.
The story, modeled after Korean dramas (or soap operas, for those unfamiliar) as the overarching framework for the play, follows a rich, and arrogant, Korean business executive (a “Chaebol”) named Benedict banished to St. Paul to run the family business. There, he meets Gao Hlee, a Hmong 29-year-old personality coach who obsessively watches Korean dramas as part of her “self care program” and is looking to lose her virginity before she turns 30.
They clash, they sing, they woo, and, for anyone who has ever seen “Boys Over Flowers,” or “Oh My Venus” or any of the other Korean dramas available (Netflix has a whole catalog – they truly are a genre unto themselves), develop a relationship riddled with twists and turns and unforeseen obstacles they must overcome in order to be together.
The show’s success comes also from its accessibility: It does not rely solely on its (perfectly on point) homage to Korean dramas or the people who watch them – though we were fortunate to watch with someone intimately familiar with Korean dramas; it’s still incredibly enjoyable, and laugh-out-loud funny, for those who have never seen an episode. Anyone who has ever read a romance novel, or watched any mid-2000’s Matthew McConaughey movie, will recognize and appreciate the show’s skewering of meet-cute love stories, the overbearing mother and mother-in-law characters, and how cultural differences can lead to awkward situations no matter the time or place.
St. Paul culture onstage
But it’s also not just a simple love story – it’s not only about rocky romances and star cross’d lovers. As we mentioned briefly before, it is equally a story about displaced cultures: She as the daughter of a Hmong refugee (who, as a people, have never had a country of their own), and him, banished and unhappy by his status-obsessed mother (a comment on a status-obsessed rising middle class in Seoul).
When they encounter an instance of Minnesota-style racism, they handle it honestly, deftly, and, somehow, humorously.
“No one would ever look down on me in Korea,” Benedict says.
Gao Hlee rolls her eyes, “Welcome to Minnesota.”
There’s no shying away from the subject – and the “tender” way the situation is resolved is worth the price of admission alone, even if questions remain on how to resolve similar situations in real life.
It’s the perfect East-meets-West story, and, ultimately, the most modern St. Paul story we’ve probably ever seen onstage. Gao Hlee’s role, and her mother’s (who loves her Thai dramas, conversely to her daughter’s Korean dramas), illustrate a strong, and important, piece of the St. Paul landscape through equal parts fairy tale and cultural history lesson.
When questioned about her love of Korean dramas, for example, and whether she loves Korean culture more than her own, Gao Hlee scoffs and says, “I love being Hmong. Hello? I’m drinking at a Hmong bar called Hmong Bar.”
And writer May Lee-Yang and director Randy Reyes manage to tell these stories without ever straying from the K-drama framework. In doing so, the initial clashing, and ultimate joining, of Hmong and Korean (and other) cultures into the backdrop of a cold, and still predominantly white, Midwest city, is also an honest and inspiring look at Minnesota as the melting pot that it is.
At its core, though, the show is light-hearted, fun, and infinitely funny. And that’s enough. It balances sophisticated with slapstick humor, while never bothering to take itself too seriously. We won’t tell you anymore than that – we won’t ruin any of the twists or turns or humorous discussions on history, culture, and traditions of great peoples and their homelands, wherever they may be.
We’ll just say that this show is one certainly not to be missed.
The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity
What: “She’s a Hmong personality coach addicted to Korean Dramas (Korean soap operas). He’s the heir to a Korean manufacturing giant banished to the new Midwest office. Will she find a man before the magic hour of her 30th birthday? Will he buck tradition and embrace his musical dreams? Fantasy collides with reality in this romantic comedy about fate, cultural clashes, and the art of losing one’s virginity.”
Where: The Park Square Theater’s Andy Boss Thrust Stage
When: Now through August 19, 2018
How much: $35-$40 is standard, though to make it accessible to everyone they’re offering a “pay what you can” model that allows those with a limited entertainment budget to enjoy the play for as little as $5. But tickets here.