Kyoung H. Park’s Tala is an ambitious patchwork of autobiography and history, poetry and dance, humor and melancholy.
It tells two stories, the first an immigration saga based on the rather distressingly interesting life of Park himself (played with wonderfully campy humor by Daniel K. Isaac), a Korean-Chilean who studied at NYU and in Korea and tried to become a legal U.S. resident in the post-9/11 era. He is the first Korean playwright from Latin America to be produced and published in the U.S.
The second story is of two Chilean revolutionaries on the eve of the 1973 coup in which General Pinochet toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Lupe (a fiery Flor De Liz Perez) and Pepe (a sometimes charismatic but sometimes stiff Rafael Benoit) meet for what is ostensibly a date on the shores of the southern Chilean island of Chiloé. (Although the program notes indicate a desert, there’s no desert on Chiloé, but let that pass.) Pepe’s ulterior motive is to enlist Lupe – who sympathizes but is no longer an active revolutionary – in a guerrilla action. Park, who also directs, tells their story with symbolism, toy props, video projections, incendiary and finely executed choreography by Yin Yue, and the poetry of Chilean Nobel Prize winners Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. (The title, Tala, is borrowed from one of Mistral’s books.)
Pepe and Lupe’s storyline progresses with much poeticism and revolutionary fervor. But there’s not enough story there for the hour-and-a-quarter length of the play. Their political back-and-forth lacks the cohesiveness and sustained intensity that would be needed to flesh the characters out into humans we could identify or sympathize with. Though Perez and Benoit work hard to bring sweat and blood to the roles, Pepe and Lupe remain symbols, Pepe with all his fervor remaining little more than a mouthpiece for ideas and poetry.
Park’s own character, whose complex identity as a gay man of Korean descent raised in Chile and trying make it as a theatrical professional in New York is conveyed almost solely through straight narrative and humorous hijinks, ironically feels much more real and compelling.
Both stories have their evocative and touching aspects. Simple but surprising effects – the sound of splashing water as the characters walk along the shore, a clear plastic box turned into a water torture device – catch the eye and ear and mind. And having been to the island of Chiloé I appreciated the references to the myths of the place, like the trauco, an ugly supernatural forest-man who lures young woman into the woods to rape them, a legend supposedly developed as an excuse for unexpected pregnancies.
But Park doesn’t make the parallels between his story and that of the revolutionaries clear. Lupe does wrestle with her place in the world, but not palpably with her own identity, and in any case she does so through the lenses of poetry and revolutionary action (“I grow tired of being made of stone and sky,” “These are no longer the times of Bolivar”) rather than in close-up. The result is a disjointed show. Its numerous entertaining elements, many of them crafted and executed with precision and clever use of technology, can’t make up for an absence of narrative sweep.
Tala continues through January 23 at the University Settlement, 184 Eldridge Street, Manhattan. Tickets and information are available at the website of Kyoung’s Pacific Beat, which produced the show.