27 Jul

Review: Bug Bite – Whatever Bit, Be Gone!

Review: Bug Bite – Whatever Bit, Be Gone!


In the opening scene of Bug Bite, a woman, Liz Sipes (played by Lizabeth Sipes) arrives on stage weighted down with a plethora of shopping bags. She is making her way through a crowd of people and is exasperated with the crowd as well as herself for subjecting herself to this irritation. Someone named Charlie is in tow, and she is exasperated with this person, too. “This is supposed to be bonding time,” she mutters to herself while pushing forward through the crowd. She is trying to exercise patience, even though there is very little to be had.

It takes a few minutes to work out that the person she is supposed to be bonding with is her daughter. We don’t know how old she is but she is old enough to have her own cell phone, which turns out to be very useful when she and Charlie get separated in the crowd. While Liz was taking a phone call, Charlie passed by the Kidrobot store and found it more compelling than following her mother around on the streets.

Watching this initial scene, it is hard not to sympathize with Charlie. We haven’t seen a lot of Liz Sipes at this point, but we have seen enough to know that she is someone who likes – actually more probable, needs – to be in control. We don’t know, but are highly suspicious that this is why she seems so disconnected with her daughter. And we will have the rest of the play to find out.

The phone call that Liz took on the street leads to a doctor’s visit and a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer. The woman who needs to be in control is now seriously out of control. Over the next fifty minutes, we watch her come to grips with this new order. Or rather, non-order.

Bug Bite is a one-woman show, but it is inhabited with a ton of characters and scenes. Ok, not literally a ton, but in addition to Liz, there are at least 15 other characters. That’s a lot of characters and scenes to act out in 50 minutes and Sipes does a great job of acting and making sure the audience knows exactly who she is playing at any time. The characters are diverse, and often very funny (one of the most enjoyable things about the play): her doctors; her other two daughters; her husband; two very different energy healers; a homeless man outside the subway; two shopkeepers in a wig shop, three people in the treatment center; a pot-smoking superintendent…I may have forgotten a few others, but you get the picture. In her quest to rid her body of the cancer, she meets lots and lots of colorful characters.

The play is billed as a “journey to stay alive, understand the choices [she has] made and either accept or change them.” This is a fair description, but actually, the play seems to be more about her relationship with Charlie rather than her relationship with cancer. This is not to diminish her fight against cancer. As she copes with the diagnosis and chemo treatments, we glimpse the fear of someone who may not be living that much longer. (Unfortunately it is just a glimpse as the the play is too short to fully develop her fear of death.) We also see that the cancer is changing her in a good way.

But it is her relationship with Charlie that we see the most and, consequently, are the most invested in. It opens the play, it ends the play, and it occupies several episodes during the play, in between all the doctor and energy healer visits. The good news is that there is real, honest-to-goodness, positive change. By the end of the play, we feel very confident that the opening scene will not be repeated. Mother and daughter have arrived at a much better relationship.

What is most frustrating about the play is the opaqueness about her other relationships, notably her husband and her other two daughters. Was Charlie the most difficult, or was she simply representative? We are given a hint that the relationship with her husband improved for the better. While this makes us feel good, it only makes us wonder what that relationship was like before the diagnosis. Was she as disconnected with him as she was with Charlie? One would hope not, but without any explanation, we are only left to wonder.

To be fair, it would be impossible to develop all those relationships in a 50-minute play. But given that, it would have been more satisfying if they had been explained more fully (even as statement to the audience, which was a technique used for other explanations in the play) rather than dangling them out there without any way to reel them in.

All that said, receiving a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer is a terrifying thing. That Sipes is alive and well to re-tell her story is a good thing. That she has a much better relationship with her daugher is even better. In some ways, it is a shame that it took Stage 4 breast cancer to get her there. But life never follows a straight line. If Liz Sipes can relay that message and allow the rest of us to think about changing our lives for the better without the Stage 4 diagnosis—well then that is a very good thing for everyone.

Bug Bite, a one-woman show written and performed by Lizabeth Sipes and co-directed by Christine Renee Miller and Peter Sprague, played at 59E59 Theaters on July 25 and 26 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place from August 17-29 in Edinburgh, Scotland as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals.

22 Jul

Review: A Thousand Miles To Freedom – My Escape from North Korea

A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea

In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced a commission to “investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…including the violation of the right to food…torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention…violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances…” (Source: United Nations Human Right Council Resolution 22/13.)

A year later, the commission published its findings which, not surprisingly based on all the anecdotal evidence that had been seeping out over the past fifty years, accused the North Korean government of being involved in systemic, widespread, and gross human rights violations. The chairman of the commission compared the North Korean government to the Nazis, presumably not a comparison that most governments would want to have made about themselves. But North Korea, and more specifically—Kim Il-Sung and his descendants, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Eun—really don’t care about the comparison. Kim Jong-Eun continues to rule in the spirit of his grandfather. Because of this, North Korea continues to be one of the most caricatured countries, but also one of the most egregious abusers of human rights. It is no wonder then that there are thousands of North Koreans who want to escape this regime and many are risking their lives to do so.

Within the past ten years, more and more North Koreans are choosing to defect (interestingly, the majority of them are women which is somewhat unusual in the history of defections). And more and more of them are coming forth to bear witness about their treacherous escapes from their native country, mostly in the hopes of raising international awareness and to bring help to their former country people. And it now seems that this is their time. There is a spate of memoirs being published this year by successful North Korean defectors, including: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park; Under the Same Sky by Joseph Kim; and The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee. A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea by Eunsun Kim is also on this list.

Kim’s escape was not literally a thousand miles, but figuratively it seems much more than that. More than anything, her journey to freedom is a sobering reminder to those of us living in a “free country” to be grateful for our country, our rights, and our freedom. As much as we complain about the current issues plaguing our country (and let’s not sugarcoat it, there are many), the life we are afforded here should never be taken for granted.

A Thousand Miles to FreedomThe structure of Eunsun Kim’s story is straightforward enough. When we first meet her in December 1997, she is eleven years old and starving to death in Eundeok, North Korea, a small town close to the border to China. Her father died a month ago. She believes her mother and sister have abandoned her. She has just enough energy to write her final will and then she falls asleep, “sure that [she] was never going to wake up again.”

When we see her in the next chapter, fifteen years have passed and she is on the subway in Seoul, Korea, heading to Sogang University where she is taking classes. Clearly she did not die of starvation, and the rest of the book is devoted to filling in the details.

While the structure may be straightforward, the story is not. The details of her escape to freedom are harrowing, almost unbelievable, and stretch across nine years. Reunited with her mother and older sister, the three escape to China, where they were befriended by a woman who spoke Korean and fed them well. She then sold them to a peasant farmer who wanted a wife to give him a son. They left for the country and their new home where they were treated like second-class citizens—forced to sleep in the stables, work in the fields, and be beaten by the family. Kim’s mother eventually bore the farmer a son, but that did not change their status within the family. Someone then turned them into the police and they were sent back to North Korea as per the arrangement between the two countries (China treats North Koreans as illegal economic migrants, despite requests from the UN to reconsider this policy.) But, by a stroke of luck, they narrowly miss being sent to prison. They chose to flee to China again and went back to the peasant farmer. It was the best option that they had at the time.

Eventually, they decide to escape from the farmer’s family and gradually make their way to Shanghai, where Kim starts to think about escaping to South Korea. She saves up enough money to pay a smuggler to get them to Mongolia where they can seek asylum at the South Korean embassy. This is the final destination as South Korea offers citizenship to all North Korean defectors, provided that they aren’t proven to be spies.

The final part of the book recounts Kim’s integration process into South Korean society, her quest to get her sister out of China and into Korea, and her return to education and decision to become a child psychologist. Adjusting to life in the bright, shiny, bustling capitalistic city is not easy. But Kim is resilient and it is not difficult to believe she will be successful.

A Thousand Miles to Freedom is a memoir with a mission. Kim, in addition to her studies, works for The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, an NGO based in Seoul. She wants to raise awareness about the plight of all of her country people who were, unlike her, unable to escape.

In that mission, she has been successful. She has an amazing story of escape (though sadly, it is not a unique story; most North Korean defectors have similarly amazing tales of dangerous escapes). She does a credible job in showing how North Koreans are indoctrinated and why it is virtually impossible for North Koreans to think any differently. She also represents well the challenges of integrating into South Korean society and the conflicting feelings of having to shed her former views of North Korea as the supreme motherland and South Korea and America as the evil enemies.

One very minor quibble: the story is easily read, but it is not great literature. Her story is told to Sebastien Falletti, the Korea correspondent for the French newspaper Le Figaro, so it is natural that the writing is not fully developed. At times though, the language and style were distracting, and I wished that there had been a little more editing. But it feels ungracious and overly nitpicky to complain about that, especially after all that Eunsun Kim has endured to get this book into print. The story is clear and her mission is being accomplished.

Don’t look here for beautiful writing, but do look here for a must-read, first-hand account of what it is like to grow up in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and what one must endure in order to escape to freedom.

18 Jul

Review: Reclaiming Vietnam – Not At All What You Would Think

Reclaiming Vietnam – Not At All What You Would Think

The half-Asian, half-Caucasian woman who jauntily bounds out on stage—handbag and smile in hand—at the beginning of the solo play Reclaiming Vietnam is in Vietnam to volunteer at an orphanage. She is meeting up with a friend to explore the country before her orphanage work starts and she excitedly relates her travel plans to the audience.

This woman has a wonderful smile, an infectious energy, and a bubbly attitude that is impossible to resist. Except that…well, except that she is so bubbly and so energetic that you wonder whether there isn’t something larger and darker lurking underneath the surface. And guess what? There is.

Initially, it seems that what lurks underneath is an identity crisis. Her name is Kim (played by Kim Chinh who also wrote the play) and we learn that she is estranged from her parents. Her father is Vietnamese, her mother Caucasian. She hates being Vietnamese, and yet, here she is in Vietnam. As the title suggests, she must be in Vietnam to reclaim her heritage.

But the title is disingenuous. Soon it becomes painfully clear that the danger lurking underneath is not at all about her Vietnamese identity, but instead, about the sexual molestation that she experienced by her cousins growing up. Oh wow! Talk about a huge sleight of hand! The play suddenly demands to be dark. And yet, Chinh manages to keep it light. Or at least, light alternating with some pretty dark revelations.

ReclaimingVietnamIt could be a criticism that Chinh never allows the play to go to a dark place and stay there. It’s as though she straps you onto her back and then drops down into a deep and dangerous well, but on a bungee cord that immediately bounces back up to the surface lightness. You are with her on her journey, which is a constant bungee jump between light and dark, Vietnam and America, and her ability to confront those members of her family who sexually abused her. It is a constant see-saw, and as an audience member, you see that she is dealing with everything, but you wonder whether she is really dealing with everything. That is a question that will linger after the play is over. After you have gone out for coffee to think about everything you have just seen.

Chinh is a terrific actor: expressive, versatile, and able to inhabit all the characters in her play with extraordinary believability. Especially notable were her impersonations of her male cousins and brothers, whether smoking while in denial of their actions or dunking their heads into a pool out of anger. Reclaiming Vietnam is worth going to see just to see her.

What trips the play up is the structure. Reclaiming Vietnam feels like two distinct plays, both of which have incredible potential, but both of which are still in embryonic form. There is the play about the sexual molestation (closer to gestation), and there is the play about the Vietnam identity (less close). I don’t think this was intentional and suspect that the two stories are intricately related to each other. Unfortunately, this does not come through in its current form.

Having said that, what feels most intriguing about Reclaiming Vietnam, is the potential to birth two very powerful plays. Within this play are two exceptional kernels ripe for development. The sexual molestation story would benefit from seeing more of the backstory and how she worked up the courage to confront her relatives rather than just seeing the final meetings. The story about identity had a lot of missing pieces and would benefit from being fleshed out more fully.

As it stands now, Chinh has written a very good play. In the last scene, she is surfing with her brothers in California. She acts out going to the beach in her wetsuit, heading into the cold water, paddling to catch a wave, and then getting pummeled by that same wave. She gets pummeled by another wave. She is ready to quit when her brother tells her a secret about surfing and she finally puts everything together.

This last scene is absolutely wonderful and it brings us back to the beginning of the play when we first encounter an energetic young beautiful woman bounding out on stage ready to take on life. After all that she has suffered, it is encouraging—even uplifting—to see her balanced on the water and ready to take on life again.

Reclaiming Vietnam written and performed by Kim Chinh and directed by Elizabeth Browning played at 59E59 Theaters on July 9 and 11 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place from August 17-19 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

16 Jul

Review: The American Soldier – Three Good Lessons

The American Soldier – Three Good Lessons

No matter how critical one feels towards war, it is virtually impossible to fault the journeymen soldiers who have to carry out that task. They are generally good kids, enlisting at a young age to protect, defend, and yes, ultimately kill for country. It turns out that the military machine is very good at taking them at a young age and teaching them to kill. But it is much less good at helping them return home to normalcy after the killing is done.

The above could be said of any soldier, but the soldier in study here is the American soldier, serving both as title and subject of Douglas Taurel’s compact, but questioning, solo play about war and its affect on the everyday soldier.

Over the course of an hour we meet eight soldiers, two fathers of fallen soldiers, and one wife and son of a soldier who has just deployed. We also glimpse most of the major wars America has fought since the Revolutionary War. (Ironically, the one major war that is missing from this panoply is the Korean War, generally dubbed “The Forgotten War.”) Taurel is both writer and actor and it is clear he identifies deeply with his subject matter—not as a soldier himself (he admits he has never served)—but as a compassionate and very concerned observer.

vertical_image_blue_nosubtitle300Taurel isn’t covering any new ground. There have been countless books, plays, movies, songs, and even poems written about the soldier returning home, severely traumatized and unable to figure out how to live a non-killing, non-military life. Just to name a few: StoryCorps’s “Military Voices Initiative;” The Matterhorn, a novel by Karl Marlentes; Basetrack Live, a documentary theater production by En Garde Arts; Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper.

But the fact that these and many many other accounts exist doesn’t make Taurel’s play any less meaningful. Even now, without conscription, we have over 1.3 million people on active duty and still, we don’t have an adequate method of returning our soldiers to civilian life. We are getting better at it, but the more reminders we have, the easier it will be to make the case for help. And for change.

As a solo show, Taurel inhabited every character and some he inhabited better than others. He was especially good when inhabiting soldiers in the field, whether freezing in Valley Forge, smoking a joint in Vietnam, or killing the enemy at Iwo Jima. Two of the most poignant episodes were of fathers talking about their deceased sons. The play showcased only one woman—the wife of a soldier who had just re-deployed. Not only did that portrayal feel less convincing, but it also highlighted the absence of the woman’s perspective, whether of the wives or the mothers. Sometimes the accents felt a little forced, as if he was trying to differentiate character by physical voice, and occasionally the costume changes felt as though they might have been more effective if done offstage. But overall, the weaknesses, while sometime distracting, shouldn’t spoil the overall effect. The American Soldier is tightly crafted and effective.

Part of the effectiveness comes from the first soldier we meet. He is the only one who reprises his role throughout the play. In military dress, he marches out on stage, turns and faces the audience, and announces that he learned three things in the army. Over the course of the play, we learn what those three lessons are, and they all involve decent, good, and human qualities.

Whether those are the three universal lessons that soldiers retain coming back from active duty is debatable. But give credit to Taurel in finding positive qualities to leave us with. He wrote this play based on letters from American soldiers all the way back from the Revolutionary War, so there must be some kernel of truth in the three lessons. Yes, they may be illusory, or just for show. Even so. If those qualities can serve as pillars of strength for the returning soldiers who have risked their lives and killed for our country…well then, ultimately that can’t be such a bad thing.

The American Soldier, written and acted by Douglas Taurel and directed by Padraic Lillis played at 59E59th Street Theaters on July 8 and 9 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place at the Zoo South Side Theater from August 7-22 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.