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Korean Pansori and Greek Tragedy

January 25, 2010

Saturday night I had the opportunity to see Medea and its Double by Seoul Factory at La MaMa E.T.C. (Can I just say that “Seoul Factory” is a great name?) The concept took the Euripides’ Medea story and split the character into to parts at odds with one another: Medea as lover and Medea as mother.

Never having read the story, I gleaned what I could from the program notes. One aspect of the production that detracted from its overall power was that there were no surtitles. All the dialogue and lyrics were in Korean. While I estimate the majority of the audience was Korean, I could not understand a single word. So I gathered Medea and Jason were lovers, then they had two children. He went away, she wanted him back, and she took revenge by killing both children. Ultimately, there was much to appreciate and understand from the song and movement alone, and I suppose the details, much like opera, are almost irrelevant when compared to the broad strokes of really big emotions.

The cast of 7 used Korean pansori and traditional song, dance and martial arts to tell the story through a range of sounds and movements. The stage was white and red, with scrims masking the musicians but giving the ability to backlight and reveal them during certain moments. Two rectangular pools of water framed the sides, with floating candles inside, creating a beautiful effect.

The costumes were also simple and white base layers, with more colorful and complex outer layers that were added to delineate character. These could be added and removed quickly which, along with a few props, created a smooth and easy transition between sections.

At just over an hour, they cover a lot of ground. It highlighted for me the differences between spoken word, dance, instrumental, and operatic performance. There were no breaks here, no chances to rest. I imagine the performers come out exhausted after every show, especially since this is a very physically, vocally, and emotionally demanding piece.

Perhaps the most moving moments for me occurred during the pansori sections where the singer was lit from the back and was allowed to do the storytelling as a solo. If you have never heard pansori, it is a traditional Korean epic song form. There are only a few stories that survive today, and they take hours to perform in their entirety. Pansori singers train for years to build stamina and the vocal quality particular to this tradition. To western ears, it is a very raw, wrecked sound that might make one’s vocal folds ache just listening to it (I have heard that singers will go out into the woods and yell until their throats bleed). However, it is precisely this quality that makes it so powerfully evocative and emotionally engaging. I had never heard it performed live before this weekend, though I had seen the movie version of perhaps the most famous stories, Chunhyang; it is available on DVD.

Like any other type of acoustic performance, hearing it live makes all the difference. Sitting 20 feet away from the singer, I could not help being moved. And not just the style of the pansori, but the vocalizations throughout the piece were a reminder and sometimes revelation of the miracle of the human voice. The range of sounds was different from what one normally hears in America. Add in the language, and it was a whole new soundscape that enveloped me completely, transporting me for that hour.

Thematically, it was a clever move to frame the story as two parts of the same woman. We talk a lot about the “mommy wars” between stay-at-home and working moms, but we don’t necessarily talk about the role change that happens for a woman when she becomes a mother, within herself. I think a lot of people assume and accept that married couples’ sex lives will deteriorate over time, and that when you are raising children it is just a fact of life. Add in our country’s puritanical roots, and a little Madonna/whore complex in the husband, and it’s no wonder.

But here is a woman who refused to let the sexual part of herself die. She felt everything in her whole body, her whole being, and though she loved her children, she still wanted to hold on to that part of herself and the relationship that led to those children’s existence. Becoming a mother forced her to grow up in many ways, forced on her responsibilities for which she was perhaps unprepared. She was determined to reclaim her sexuality, whatever it took. In the end, she was so unbalanced it caused her to go mad and to take drastic action. Like so many things in life, I guess moderation is key. If Jason had shown her the slightest tenderness and respected her as a sexual being, perhaps she could have reconciled the two parts of herself and her children would not have suffered.

As someone who is still in the midst of figuring out whether I want children, this allowed me to examine the subject from a different angle. I typically get hung up on the details of health insurance, scheduling, and how to provide love and education and structure for an entire human being. But I don’t necessarily think about the transition in roles that having children would precipitate. Of course I think about the new “mother” role, but  don’t always consider how the new role would fit in with my current roles. I think it’s a transition that is probably more traumatic than one might assume. If it’s anything like the transition from “daughter”/”single woman”/”girlfriend”/”fiancee” to “wife,” it’s a doozie.

When I got married, I didn’t think much would change, but I found that private contract, public declaration, and civil paperwork had a very big effect on me. I got a new name, and a new identity. I thought I would be the same, but I wasn’t. Now I am comfortable with the new me. I know who I am, and I make sense to myself again. How does one do the work to make it OK when you have feedings and diapers and sleepless nights for years on end? I think it’s why some women find they have “lost” themselves when their children are grown. I don’t think you can ignore the “mother” role that having children creates. It’s like gender or ethnicity or race. You are X. It is inseparable from your identity. It is not everything you are, but you will never not be X. Even if you try to ignore or play down its importance, it will rear its head one way or another. And they don’t always play nice with one another. Does one have to choose?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Julia Bates permalink
    January 28, 2010 7:42 pm

    I think now with birth control, one does GET to choose. But saying that makes the process seem rational. It’s not. Though therapy and good talk with one’s partner and the assistance of outside child care providers allows one to assume a rational frame of mind on most days. Not all days. The frantic diaper part only lasts two years. Then the evolution of language and dialogue make negotiation easier with the new ‘being’. Then the lovely years between 4 and 10 when children are more autonomous but still loving. Then hormones—for everybody! Then a wonderful sharing as they become young adults. Ta Dah! And then MOM gets to try and figure out who she is yet again. Whew! But evolution is not for the faint of heart! And children build strong hearts! Love ya.

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