Equal Theater offers four one-person plays, each play performed straight from the home of the actor instead of a theater. The performances are cozy yet powerful affairs—the decades of experience garnered by a veteran actor and the unique venue only adding to the enjoyment of the play. Life is one of the four available for viewing this year; the stage on which it is performed is not too far away from the Anam area, and its plot is one people will be able to easily recognize. The poignancy of the story; the comfort of a living space instead of a wide, cold stage; and of course, the decades-long training and talent of Kim will warm audiences’ hearts.
The world is full of talented people—more than one would think. Although silver screens, red carpets, and opulent theaters are what one would most often associate with great actors and actresses, thespians with the power to move hearts and call forth tears can be found in everyday places— even next door. The play Life features one such thespian. Actor Kim Dong Soo adapted the distinguished Chinese writer Yu Hua’s novel, To Live, into a monopolylogue. Featuring nothing other than the actor, the script, and a few inanimate props, Life is closer to a recital than a play, but the powerful acting of Kim is more than enough to draw audiences into the story and make them feel as if they are living it.
A short subway ride from Anam to Wolgeok, a longer bus ride and a cozy walk through a neighborhood later, the playgoer will find themselves inside the home of Kim, where the play will take place. Dressed in the threadbare tunic and pants of Fugui—the protagonist of To Live, who is renamed Bokgui in the play—the elderly actor warmly greets his audience. Turning a page of the script with a steady hand, he picks up a cowbell; its sound heralds the beginning and closing of the play. As the performance starts, only the clang of the rusty old bell and the presence of Kim fills the study-stage. However, they are enough to conjure up a scene in rural China, where Bokgui lives and works alongside his trusty bull.
The play is set from the 1940s to the 1960s and follows the story of Bokgui, born and wed into money, whose life tr uly begins after he squanders away all his fortunes on harlots, liquor, and gambling. With the support of his steadfast wife Gajin, he learns the simple joys of a farmer’s life as he toils to put food on the table. Bokgui steadily loses all his family members through a series of misfortunes, yet life goes on. Left alone, Bokgui eventually finds a kindred spirit in an old bull, which he rescued from slaughter at the marketplace, and lives out the remainder of his long days with it as his companion. The whole play consists of Bokgui telling his bull, which he named after himself, all about the bumpy, poignant path that fate had led him down all his life.
Fate consistently deals Bokgui a cruel hand, yet it is not completely without mercy; every happy moment Bokgui spends feels all the more precious. Kim’s acting ability combines with the bittersweet tale to greatly increase the emotional investment of the audience. It is clear that Kim is more than familiar with the original stor yline—he tells the audience before the play’s start that his play was born from his longing for a faithful presentation of To Live. His deep understanding of the subject matter clearly shows in his performance. For all the ups and downs, the great joys and shattering losses, at its roots To Live is a quiet recollection; fittingly, Kim’s performance is genuinely moving but not overly emotional. The audience can see both the Bokgui of the past— a character that openly laughs, weeps, and rages, and the Bokgui of the present—the wizened narrator who recounts what is already past and acts as an emotional anchor. Though they are technically the same character, they have different roles, both essential to the play. Kim’s masterful acting harmonizes them in such a way that the audience is completely drawn in without becoming overwhelmed.
▲ Actor Kim Dong Soo. Provided by PWFK.
More unique performances like Life are available, all with one actor putting on the play in their residences. The Players’ Welfare Foundation of Korea (PWFK) is the organization behind them—it is a foundation that focuses on the well-being of actors and actresses. Equal Theater is one of the benefits PWFK offers specifically for thespians over the age of 60. It is as new as it is innovative, for Equal Theater’s very first run was in 2015. The entrance fee is affordable at just 10,000 won, and all of it goes directly to the performers. According to PWFK, the program is intended to promote local cultural activity as well as provide a new paradigm for stage performances; considering the novelty of a play done at home along with the excellent performance so far given of Life, it may be safe to say that Equal Theater has been a success.
The story of Life is a simple, inexorable motion that neither stops nor turns back, much like life itself. Kim takes the audience by the hand and leads them back to Bokgui’s past, walking beside them, helping them see through Bokgui’s eyes, and mature as Bokgui matured. One of his most moving and memorable lines is “Rest well, my Gajin.” It is a fond farewell to his lifelong companion, a heartfelt thank-you to his wife. The message will stay with the audience long after the words leave his lips. It will become a thank-you to the audience as well, for they have also journeyed beside Bokgui throughout his long and eventful life.