“Don’t Be Too Surprised,” shown at the Yale Cabaret on Thursday, written by Geun-Hyung Park and translated and directed by Kee-Yoon Nahm DRA ’12, is a refreshing take on a topic oft-pondered — human relationships and the multi-headed feelings that come with them. The entire show plays out on just one set: a modest Korean home, furnished with plastic chairs, a small television and two tiny rooms. The bare and unembellished house is antithetical to what is to come — a flamboyant and complex story with delicate issues.
Categorizing human emotion is never easy. Often, not only are we completely inept at detecting another person’s emotional state, but we also have a tricky time understanding our own. What is the difference between intense attachment and exquisite unattainability? Does the glint in my eye signal that I am, in fact, in love with you, or is it a reflection of how much I am settling and how hurt I am? Would I be frustrated and angry if someone who made me miserable while I was alive turned up at my funeral and howled? Are devastation and ecstasy, the opposite ends of the spectrum of emotion, essentially the same? Don’t Be Too Surprised if you start believing that they are.
Loud and dramatic, the story of this Korean family is as unpredictable as humans themselves. Hilarious and, in its stolen moments, painfully true of the human experience, “Don’t Be Too Surprised” artfully highlights the cracks of everyday family life, from petty politics in the household to the deeper issues embedded within intimate relationships. Though set specifically within a Korean household, the play offers a social commentary on family life everywhere. An out-of-service toilet, a constipated brother-in-law, a hooker wife, a runaway husband and, above all, a weary and suicidal father, in an extreme example of role delegation, make a good argument for the specific “types” within every family. Further complicating the story with an air of incestuous romance and the heaviness of familial duties, “Don’t Be Too Surprised,” although unique and, at times, bizarre, is relatable.
The central theme of the play, however, is death. Death, although intertwined with several morose and deeply uncomfortable feelings with regard to the hard truth of impermanence, also raises several logistical questions. In this rather dysfunctional Korean family, they must not only come to terms with the death of a family member, but also address practical matters such as how to dispose of the body. “Should we cremate him or bury him?” asks the brother. Dealing with the discomfort of cold questions while simultaneously understanding the catastrophic event created an all-too-familiar scenario of elegance in emotion and a reality that, more often than not, hits us hard.
The theme of death is contrasted with romance. “Your voice makes her want to stop menstruating,” says the husband to his brother. An unlikely love affair, still in development, followed by a confession of infidelity, adds yet another dynamic to a story that glues together discomfort and beauty. The inexplicable nature of attachment and attraction ends in the surrender of the characters — an acceptance of the way things are. Familial and non-Platonic love, with shades of dislike and annoyance, give way to the idea of an unconditional affection, which exists, although in varying degrees, in every family.
The story, in its entirety, merges disparate, yet ever-present and all-important themes, under one metaphorical and literal roof. “Shit and a dead body,” a dialogue eloquently delivered by a character, would have been a good alternative title for this play. But “Don’t Be Too Surprised,” which effectively communicates the double-meanings inherent in the scenes, does justice to every other of the myriad interpretations that the audience members could have walked out with.
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