(l to r): Esther Jun, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Andre Sills. Photo by Kristian Jones.
September 3 – 29, 2013
Max Bell Theatre
Listen to my review on CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/episode/2013/09/09/jessica-goldman-reviews-kims-convienence/
As a critic, it’s my job to think hard about plays. To watch the stage with analytical eyes that appraise and question every motive, move and mood that is performed. It’s also my job to take that thinking and turn it into commentary that not only critiques, but fingers-crossed, captures some deeper essence of the experience that expands the reader’s engagement with the performance one way or another. It’s heady work that is often frustrating and difficult, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Except maybe this time. Perhaps just this once you’ll permit me to delay all that deep thought and specificity in analysis and instead just lead with my gut on this one. Yes? Good, so here it is, my purely simple emotional reaction:
I love Kim’s Convenience. I loved it when I saw it in Toronto last year. I think I love it even more this time around. I love that it made me laugh and cry all over again. I love the set and the performances and the writing and the direction and the messages we take away from the show. I love that Toronto theatre company Soulpepper is taking this show on a national tour with the original cast and that Theatre Calgary was smart enough to say yes to hosting it. Most of all I love that I got to my feet applauding last night’s performance with exclamations of, ‘wheeeeee, yippee, rah rah rah!’ running thorough my head.
In other, more considered and professional words, Kim’s Convenience is an all-round superlative show. One that I will now give the full critic treatment to as is my duty.
Written in 2011 by Ins Choi, Kim’s Convenience is about a Korean-owned convenience store in a downtown Toronto neighborhood in the early throes of gentrification. Appa, the fiery patriarch owner of the store, is visited by a real estate agent offering him a large sum of money to sell the space. Appa refuses, citing his store’s importance to the community and hoping instead that his 30-year-old daughter Janet will take over. Janet of course wants nothing to do with the store, at least professionally. Despite her burgeoning career as a photographer, Janet is still happy to live both above and off the store, taking food when and if she feels like it and profiting from her immigrant parents hard work. But just when we think Janet may be a spoiled brat we learn that she too has put in her time at the store, especially since her older brother Jung’s falling out and disappearance from the family. The brilliance in Choi’s script is his ability to allow the audience equal empathy for both the strong-willed Appa and Janet and later for her mother Umma and Jung. We care about each and every one of these characters and are utterly and addictively invested in their stories. We may not be Korean, we may not have had parents that ran a corner store and we may not even have experienced immigrant issues in our upbringing. None of that matters. Choi is giving us a story about family. A story that examines parental expectation and generational differences and how ultimately love, when finally expressed, can bridge the divide and make change less scary.
But despite some very touching and teary-eyed moments, Kim’s Convenience is without a doubt a comedy. Riotous, hysterical, side-splitting take your pick of adjectives – Choi’s other bit of brilliance in this script is the creation of one of the all-time greatest comedic characters to grace the stage. Appa is the perfect study in how to craft a stereotypic, hot-blooded ethnic lead, with full accented broken English, awkward situational racist leanings, chauvinistic tendencies, bombastic views and yet still be adored and respected by every single member of the audience as they laugh with and at him. Whether he is explaining his theory of which types of races, genders and sexualities “steal or no steal from store”, ranting about illegally parked, Korean enemy Japanese cars or putting people in arm locks to get his way, Appa is a constant, deliriously exhausting streak of laughs. Choi can be credited with putting the show’s comedy on the page, but it is actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee that must get the credit for taking these lines and turning out a performance that defies expectation in its brilliance and brings new gravitas to the term show-stopping. With pitch-perfect comedic and dramatic timing, Lee’s Appa has us roaring with laughter one minute and choking up with tears the next. He blends slapstick physical comedy, subtle emotional acting and intense explosive delivery into a complex cocktail of a character that we believe has genuine depth and history far beyond what the script allows. Kudos to Director Weyni Mengesha and Remount Director Albert Schultz for giving Lee the space and confidence to unleash this gem of character.
With such a tour de force performance it must not be an easy job keeping up for the rest of the cast, but they do so with verve. Esther Jun as Janet holds her own with Appa and was far more emotionally flexible than the first time I saw the play. Her thin-ish voice however was at times lost on stage and the performance would have benefitted from a pump in volume. Regardless, Jun’s flirtations with a potential boyfriend in the show were so sweetly played that it must be counted as one of the highlights of the evening. The look of stress and worry that populates Jean Yoon’s face as Umma, the mother, the entire show tells you everything you need to know without a word spoken. Yoon in fact gets little dialogue in the play but makes the most of what she is given. Her Korean-spoken scenes with Appa where she is able to convey meaning in spite of the language barrier is a testament to her talent. But it’s Yoon’s scene with Jung, where she shows great forcefulness and strength through very subtle and meek delivery that truly impresses. Andre Sills in a variety of roles, but most noticeably as Alex, a cop and love interest to Janet, nicely blends his non-Korean characters into the mix with ease. Playwright Ins Choi as Jung shows his double talent by acting this small part as wonderfully as it was written. A bundle of anger and anxiety and disappointment, Jung’s longing for his estranged father leaks out in little ways and provides one of the most beautiful juxtapositions of laughter and tears in the entire play. It is a uniformly strong cast who’s collective serves to make Lee’s Appa an ever greater presence for us all.
But in a cast of five there is a sixth character on stage in Kim’s Convenience and that’s Ken Mackenzie’s hyper-real set design. Save for one scene where the lights are dimmed to portray another space, all the action in the play takes place inside the convenience store. Mackenzie hasn’t so much created the interior of a store for the set as much as he has seemingly broken into a corner store, hijacked everything inside it and reassembled it onstage at the Max Bell Theatre. To my eye, there was not one bag of chips or energy drink or price stamper or lottery ticket sign out-of-place. Ins Choi says his play was inspired by his father, the men in his family’s church and his uncle who had a convenience store. All real experiences that Mackenzie honours by making sure the space is as real as the men who inspired it.
Kim’s Convenience has stayed in my head and my heart since the first time I saw it as a patron. Now having seen it as a critic, it will stay with me just as strongly in different ways. But regardless which viewing or how hard I’ve had to think about the play, my initial ‘yippee, wheeee, rah rah rah!’ reaction stands. Hey, even us critics are allowed to keep it simple sometimes.
For the theatre junkie/occasional theatre goer/never goes to the theatre/Korean/non-Korean/immigrant-born/non-immigrant born/male/female/old/less old/and everyone else I can think of – Yes, the declaration of, ‘yippee, wheee, rah rah rah’ was meant for your consideration – SEE IT.