The South Korean artist uses a trio of chatty rice cookers to delve into the dark and desolate sides of his country’s past and present. The U.S. premiere of Cuckoo runs at On the Boards through Sunday.
It dives in fast. Video projected on a back screen shows discussions of debt-to-equity ratios and interest rates. International Monetary Fund members negotiate a country’s economic fate. Politicians strike deals.
And then, a pundit: Today is National Humiliation Day.
Rioting, fire, violence, protests. Stern faces. Desperate leaps. Scenes flash by across the years. 1997 … 2000 … 2001 … 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2015, 2016 …
And the clashes continue. Amid fires on the streets, the flags of South Korea and the United States wave above the protests.
Lights fade out, and back up on a solitary performer with a serious demeanor. He begins his tale in fast-speaking Korean, as translations in English are projected on the video screen behind.
As artist Jaha Koo, an unassuming 36-year-old from South Korea, digs in, the delivery methods lighten but the topic never does. Cuckoo is his recitation of the recent history of a country, his country, in what he’s dubbed “a society under pressure.” He’s chosen three Cuckoo rice cookers — Hana, Duri, and Seri — to tell the story with him. The metaphor isn’t cloaked: with pressure and boiling water, they cook the hard grains; and if all goes well, they stop just short of steaming over. That, Koo surmises, is much like the state of affairs in his home country: putting pressure on its citizens just to the point of boiling over.
Unlike the Cuckoos, sometimes, they do.
In a crisis that’s too easily glossed over in numbers and news bites, Koo puts it in personal terms. He tells of the loss of a close friend, Jerry; of the “screen door,” a contraption installed to keep people from leaping in front of trains, a popular method of suicide; and of the 2002 World Cup, hosted in South Korea and Japan — “It was the first time I saw crowds of joyful people in the streets” — in contrast to the familiar throngs of protesters. He places blame for his country’s economic crisis most heavily on Robert Rubin, Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration; and highlights a cruel irony as Rubin’s daughter-in-law, Gretchen, confidently champions her book/”movement,” The Happiness Project, on the screen behind him. In another scene, back in Korea, prominent lit-up crosses dotting the cityscape. They feel like another cruel, but familiar, irony; a suffering people under the watch of purported Christian charity and provision.
Throughout his performance, Koo looks a bit lost. It’s a quiet sadness. Resigned to the state of affairs — but not quite.
It sounds depressing, and to some extent it is. But Koo’s clever use of rice cookers adds whimsy to the severe. Each takes a personality of its own: Duri, the cynical one; Seri, the showiest; and Hana, the quiet workhorse, who cooks the rice that Koo will apportion with finesse and efficiency as the show comes to a close.
Koo’s delivery never feels comically strained, but stays buoyant enough to make the heavy topic accessible. And while it’s temping to want a “Now what?”, it seems his journey away from the severity of home, sharing his music and his story — a heavy heart and message draped in light — is his answer in itself.
It’s a deft balance, the whimsical and the deadly. Koo has managed to strike it just right.
Cuckoo runs through 1/26 at On the Boards, in Lower Queen Anne. Tickets are $32 ($37 with fees); info here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: discounted ticket options are limited, but learn more about the Ticket Bank here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.