Hansol Jung’s Wild Goose Dreams, currently playing at the Public Theater, is a couple of good ideas that got drunk at a bar in Vegas and wound up in an Elvis chapel and got married. They tried to make it work, but they should really get a divorce. Individually, they’re terrific. But they don’t belong together. He’s a little bit binary, she’s a little bit Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I know, I know, they say opposites attract and that may be true. Doesn’t mean they belong together for the long haul.
Wild Goose Dreams revolves around the themes of loneliness and isolation. First, we have a father (Francis Jue) who comes on stage and, talking to the audience as if we were his children, tells us a bedtime fairy tale about a beautiful angel who got trapped on earth for many years without her wings. She married a human and had a family, but after 20 years when she found her wings, she flew away. The father tells us that the moral of the story is, if you have to choose between family and flying, always choose flying. And he walks, not flies, off the stage.
Enter the chorus that is essentially the inner binary workings of a computer. They sing various combinations of the words “zero” and “one” over and over in varying patterns and rhythms, interspersed with bursts of descriptions of what that results in. The two main characters Minsung (Peter Kim) and Nanhee (Michelle Krusiec) are lonely, awkward people who meet online, aided by the computer chorus. Minsung is a South Korean “goose father” whose wife and children live in the US for the sake of the children’s education while he stays behind and supports them. He hasn’t seen them in a long time and his relationship with them is eroding fast. Nanhee is a defector from North Korea who managed to get away, but without her family. It has been four years since she last saw them, and she is deeply worried about them and very lonely. She has gotten the name of an underground courier who will smuggle money and a phone to her father and has had a brief, static-y conversation with him and she has assured him she is happy, married, and with two sons. Which sends her online in search of this imaginary family.
The use of the computer chorus is effective in emphasizing the distance that the electronics actually puts between people while purporting to make connections. It’s a little hard to understand at times and overwhelming. Especially when Minsung’s daughter Heejin (Kendyl Ito) is texting her father something like “WTF OMG dad untag me from that pic WTHIWWY?!?!??” But once Minsung and Heejin meet, their use of electronics is sharply curtailed, and the computer chorus makes only brief appearances when a smart phone comes into play. What seems to be a predominate element in the first third of the play, virtually drops out.
After Minsung and Nanhee’s first night together, Wild Goose Dreams feels more like a Grimm’s fairy tale than a modern binary rendering. There are people floating around who we know are not really there, hallucinations of half people, half penguins and nightmare visions of tortures that look like they came out of Nazi Germany. What started out as funny and bright turns dark and dangerous. And while, yes, they both serve the same master, the themes of loneliness and isolation, there’s a sense of purposelessness at the end. I rarely have the experience of being extremely excited and engaged in the beginning of a play, and at the end being unsure of what I was supposed to be taking away.
Which is a shame. There are so many good elements to this production. So many good ideas about presenting a computer chorus which worked – but it needs to be carried through a whole piece. Kudos to Hansol Jung for thinking of it and kudos to Leigh Silverman the director for shaping it so well. And big kudos to the members of the chorus Dan Domingues, Lulu Fall, Kendyl Ito, Jaygee Macapugay, Joel Perez, Jamar Williams and Katrina Yaukey. I’m also grateful to Hansol Jung for introducing me to the phenomenon of the goose father. I had no knowledge of it prior to seeing Wild Goose Dreams and it seems particularly relevant now. Peter Kim as goose dad Minsung had the unenviable task of portraying a 40-something nerdy, introverted, unhip dad and managed to make him endearing, attractive, caring, and completely lovable.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Differences of geographical origin are just the start of the complexities that besiege Minsung and Nanhee in this overwhelming play about being overwhelmed in a very confusing century."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Wild Goose Dreams is a tricky play, full of both richness and distraction. The core story of Nanhee and Minsung is artfully constructed: Jung has written characters that complement each other exactly yet also seem organic, messy and real."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"Wild Goose Dreams means to tell us that it’s tough to forge personal relationships in a world of machines. Unfortunately, that always-lively computer chorus is far more engaging than Yoo and Guk."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"Many of us turn to the internet for solace and communication when lonely. It's an instant and convenient way to attempt to forge personal communications, albeit of the technologically removed kind. The new play by Hansol Jung, having its New York premiere at the Public Theater, gives that phenomenon a dramatization with a timely international twist. Depicting the awkward courtship between a South Korean man and a North Korean female defector, Wild Goose Dreamsoffers a flavorful if wildly overcluttered portrait of star-crossed romance."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...