Of Hope and Courage, the new play by Theatre Mu, is only vaguely about hope and courage. More precisely, I would say it is about terror and soul-searching. Two unique folk tales compose this two-act show: “Distant Song” and “Demons of Noto Hanto.” The cast of “Distant Song” consists of some talented young actors, which surprised me considering I had never seen many of them perform previously. At first, I was unimpressed by Sherwin F. Resurreccion as Yi Yeoung Hun, a youthful man on a journey. He has an awkwardly performed monologue at the beginning of the show that seemed to indicate his inexperience, and I worried that the remainder of the act would be a drag because of it. However, Resurreccion would prove to have more talent than this inelegant line-reading suggested.
Hun travels to Bul-guk-san, a Korean mountain, in search of an old hermit who purportedly has the answers to Hun’s weighty question – specifically, Hun wishes to know how he can become a man and bring wealth to his family. On his journey, Hun tells a tale of a rabbit and a tortoise to calm a weeping dragon, played by an actor in a blue and green reflective costume and mask, who cries: “How did I become so mean, so terrible?” During this beguiling scene, Resurreccion unveils a previously hidden flair for comedy. While telling this story, the actor crouches and bounces like a springy bunny, his arms bent and hands curled. He twitches his nose and speaks in a high-pitched, girlish voice. Then, he quickly falls to the floor and imitates an old turtle with a deep voice and slight, sluggish motions. This presentation succeeds both in calming the sorrowful dragon and swaying me – I realized that Resurreccion has more to offer than I predicted. I should also mention Allen Malicsi, who plays the fuming-yet-soft-hearted dragon. Malicsi flows across the stage in his shiny costume, moving in a fluid dance punctuated by martial arts moves. He quickly, and humorously, transforms from a snippy dragon to a meek, wheezy cry-baby, and finally to a grateful, generous friend to Hun.
Another performance solidified this act: An imposing Edwin Strout guided Hun on his travels as Oh Lree Soh, a cowardly, albeit witty, badger. Strout snuffles and gruffs his way through the part, showing off his versatility – this is one part I certainly did not expect to see him play, as he usually portrays gruff, bossy types.
Unfortunately, I think many theater companies try to do too much in a production. In this instance, instead of perfecting one act – the first act, with a little more fine tuning, would have been outstanding – the company decided to make this an underdeveloped two-act production. In act two, “Demons of Noto Hanto,” Strout returns as a vicious samurai warrior determined to wipe out a small Japanese village. Disappointingly, Strout’s impetus is prematurely halted here, although I was reminded of Strout’s performance in Pigs Eye Theatre’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, in which he demonstrated great gumption in portraying a bitter, drug-addled television comic.
The villagers, aware of their vulnerability to the samurai, decide to dress as demons and pound on drums in an attempt to horrify and dissuade the samurai from slaughtering their village. This is dramatized as a dazzling scene, illuminated by an orange-red glow and mystical taiko drumming, and is the highlight of the second act.
Regrettably, the characters never fully come to life, as much of the time they are hidden behind masks and drums. Furthermore, the act is composed of choppy, underdeveloped scenes. For example, in one scene we see Strout approaching on a boat, represented by a raised, triangular wooden platform, while he angrily tells a warrior that they must be prepared to destroy the village. But once they see the villagers dancing and drumming, he quickly stops his attack. The samurai gives up too quickly, especially as the demons are unconvincing. They consist of masked performers jogging in place with their arms held up like marionettes, and are hardly the sort of otherworldly creatures that would cause a warrior to lose his courage.
Of Hope and Courage plays through Sept. 29 at Intermedia Arts, (612) 871-4444