Korean and American theater troupes combine for a fast-paced musical

An experimental theater company from downtown Manhattan (Concrete Temple Theatre) and two performance troupes from South Korea (Playfactory Mabangzen and Yellowbomb) have joined forces to create a fast-paced, futuristic musical theater piece that blends traditional storytelling to contemporary production techniques. “The Legend of Waitress & The Robber” will have its world premiere on Saturday and Sunday May 21 and 22 at PS 21 in Chatham, where the play was in studio for the previous two weeks. The show is presented in English and Korean with surtitles.

“Cartoon theatre” is one of the most appealing phrases used in promotional material for the unusual play. According to co-director Renee Philippi, this description refers to several aspects of the show – the two-dimensional sets, the speed of unfolding (16 scenes in approximately 70 minutes) and the unexpected but frequent moments of humor. “We call it imagined visual theatre. The visuals are as important to us as the spoken language,” says Philippi.

The story is a blend of two literary sources that belong to different centuries and continents, but nevertheless share a common theme of alienation by adult children from their families. The first is “The Robbers,” a popular and influential play by 18th-century German author Frederick Schiller about a rivalry between aristocratic brothers (Verdi made an opera out of it). The second is “The History of Hong Gildong”, a centuries-old Korean novel that’s basically a Robin Hood tale about stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

The new work explores these themes in a dystopian era where humans are so isolated that they are only allowed to interact through the use of cellphones. A waitress so pities the elderly she serves that she kidnaps them as a form of release, freeing them from their oppressive phones. Meanwhile, in a wealthy and influential family, the eldest boy (“first son” in Korean jargon) owns the main mobile phone company and he is undermined by his rebellious younger brother. He wants all rebels arrested.

There should be plenty on stage as there is a cast of ten in changing roles, including the “second son” who soars on a skateboard. The unique decor is made of cutouts in the shape of mobile phones and is entirely made of cardboard. It was designed and built by Hudson-based designer Carlo Adinolfi, who is also one of the performers.

Director Philippe cites the politically charged collaborations of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and their approach to structure as an influence. “The approach is episodic, not like standard musical theatre. The characters break the fourth wall and communicate the message that we are going to tell you this story for your good,” she says.

Still intended as a collaborative effort between the directors of the three companies, the piece has been in development for over three years. There was a workshop in Seoul in 2019 in anticipation of a premiere at La Mama in Greenwich Village the following year. Although COVID interfered with this schedule, a video adaptation was made during the lockdown period. The pandemic has also shed new light on aspects of the play, such as contemporary isolation and strained family ties.

The ensemble’s two-week residency on the bucolic 100 acres of PS 21 was much more than an extended rehearsal period. This gave the international mix of performances the opportunity to become a united team, while individual players are given unhurried time to sink deeper into their roles. “Being here allowed us to add emotion, energy and vitality in a new way,” says Adinolfi, the actor and designer.

Hosting extended residencies for the development of innovative works has become a priority for PS 21 Executive and Artistic Director Elena V. Siyanko. “Often in New York, a company spends a week in a theater and it’s an expensive, high-pressure atmosphere to create new work. We invite artists to stay and use our facilities for two or three weeks at a time, a considerable amount of time so that their work does not appear starved,” says Siyanko. “Our interest combines puppetry, music and theatre, things that are hard to identify and define and push genres in new directions, expanding the concept of theatre.”

The institution, officially named Performance Spaces for the 21st Century, is located minutes from downtown Chatham and for 20 years has presented a modest series of dance, theater and film under a tent on a pitch. In late summer 2019, it opened a state-of-the-art open-air pavilion that seats 300 people and a stage that, out of season, becomes a flexible bouldering space with a capacity of 100 people.

Under the management of Siyanko since 2019, the range has expanded considerably. Although her tastes are adventurous, she says “most of our shows are popular and for everyone.” Offerings this summer include performances from Paul Taylor Dance Company, Nigeria’s Q Dance Company and Israel’s Vertigo Dance, as well as the Mark Morris Dance Group in a special August 3 appearance on the waterfront in Hudson, followed two nights later by a gala in the pavilion. There are also world music and jazz evenings, a series of three concerts of modern chamber music and two Berkshire Opera Festival performances, as well as family and outdoor events.

joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

“The Legend of the Waitress and the Thief”

When: 6 p.m. Saturday, May 21 and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 22

Where: PS21 Black Box Theatre, 2980 NY-66, Chatham

Tickets: $10 to $30.