For one brief moment, it promised so much. Wild Goose Dreams opens with a monologue that tells of an angel who loses her wings and is therefore compelled to remain on earth. Is this a piece of authentic Korean folklore? Or the invention of playwright Hansol Jung? I can’t say, though in any case it appears craftily manipulated to include a witty, contemporary-feeling punchline. The passage is performed by Francis Jue, a lovely actor who cunningly mixes a sense of childlike wonder with experienced wryness.
If only the lyricism of this opening passage lingered longer! Alas, within minutes, Wild Goose Dreams amps up into cacophonous overdrive from which it never recovers.
For we are soon immersed in a jangly recitation meant to evoke social media. A large cast deliver their relentless patter (“Smiley face!” “Delete!”) with a robotic cheeriness reminiscent of 1960’s TV variety shows. For a few minutes, it’s fun, but it gets old fast. Translating computer chat into ensemble voices is already an overfamiliar theatrical device, and Jung brings no particular freshness or charm to the task.
More damagingly, it derails the central narrative of Wild Goose Dreams, which attempts to explore the complicated life of Yoo Nanhee (played by likeable actor Michelle Krusiec), a young North Korean woman who has defected to South Korea (the character played by Jue turns out to be her father) and begins a rather awkward relationship with Guk Minsung (actor Peter Kim, also appealing), who has sent his wife and child to the United States in search of new opportunities.
This very human story has significant promise along several lines—the clash of North and South Korean culture; the perils and advantages of even broader global communication; and of course, the timeless issues of any romantic relationship. Instead it’s sketchy and underwritten, with neither character registering much dimensionality. Add that shrill human emoji chorus and it doesn’t stand a chance.
Frankly, It’s difficult to imagine that a script as noisy and ultimately thin as Wild Goose Dreams would have gotten even a second read in a major theater’s literary office, yet the Public Theater has lavished considerable resources on director Leigh Silverman’s quite spectacular production (sets by Clint Ramos, costumes by Linda Cho, lighting by Keith Parham). The only explanation I can come up with is a desire to represent a cultural story that is largely unexplored in our theaters.
Yet the irony here is that the cultural story never fully registers. The net effect of Wild Goose Dreams is a serious, adult story subsumed in a kind of surreal, updated episode of The Electric Company. Once you introduce an automated penguin jumping out of a toilet (don’t ask), there’s really no coming back.
Wild Goose Dreams plays through December 19. For more information, visit the New York Public Theater website.