There’s much to praise in “The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity,” a funny and culturally revelatory comedy that premiered over the weekend at Park Square Theatre.
Director Randy Reyes, whose Theater Mu commissioned the piece, stages it expertly to maximize the humor even as the show confidently celebrates both Hmong and Korean culture.
The acting company is led by strong principals, with Dexieng Yang, an Augsburg University sophomore, making an impressive professional debut as the title character. And “Drama Addict’s Guide” adds to the growing reputation of Twin Cities playwright May Lee-Yang, an astute observer and cultural ambassador whose stereotype-popping stage works include “Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman” and “Ten Reasons Why I’d Be a Bad Porn Star.”
Still, for all its wit and verve, “Korean Drama Addict” is a bit overstuffed at 165 minutes (including intermission). Judicious edits would make the story more potent.
The culture-clash comedy orbits Gao Hlee, a 29-year Hmong woman who works as a personality coach. She self-medicates by watching Korean soap operas (Hmong ones are too close to reality). And she gets drunk from time to time.
Her widowed mother (Phasoua Vang), a shaman, wants Gao Hlee to marry and have a child by 30. Enter Benedict Song. A cold, domineering chaebol, or Korean heir, Benedict (Brian Kim) was once an aspiring K-pop singer, but became president of the family company after his father’s untimely death — for which his mother, Madame Song (Katie Bradley), blames him.
Benedict is coming to Minnesota to find new customers. His mother hires Gao Hlee, thinking she may be Korean, to help him loosen up. After some awkwardness, the two bond over whose culture has the weirder food (Gao Hlee declares herself the winner after citing a dish of squirrel).
Subplots include Benedict’s assistant, Secretary Kim (Clay Man Soo), who has unexplored desires; Gao Hlee’s cousin and former boyfriend Tou Mong (Gregory Yang), plus a raft of ghosts.
Lighting by Karin Olson and sound design by Matthew Vichlach help the production shift effortlessly between milieus, including contemporary Minnesota, where Benedict learns something about passive-aggressiveness; the spirit realm, where the ghosts of past lovers gaze impassively on Gao Hlee, and the dream space of Korean soaps.
The acting company pulls it all off with style. Kim, a credible matinee idol and pop star, is excellent as Benedict, showing us both the ice in his stunted soul and glimmers of light when he flashes back to his youthful dreams. Yang matches him toe-to-toe, handling the dialogue skillfully and showing us the many sides of a character caught between her mother’s wishes and her own.
Playwright Lee-Yang borrows plot devices and thematic elements from Korean soaps. Madame Song’s sole focus on the bottom line eclipses all other emotions, including the frivolous idea that her son may feel love for someone of his own choosing.
In dealing with his stern mother, Benedict learns a thing or two about America, Hmong culture and himself. “Korean Drama Addict” isn’t so foreign after all.
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