By Bob Shuman

Byungkoo Ahn’s distillation of the lives of Leonardo da Vinci, Alan Turing, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hans Christian Andersen, among others, works so effectively—and is so different from other documentary biographies–because the director and author is more interested in high art than formulaic journalism or encyclopedic profiles.  His 13 Fruitcakes, which recently played at La MaMa for four days–June, 13-16–employs aria and poetry; couture and dance en pointe, never decadently, and always with understated, impeccable taste.  The show’s thirteen musical vignettes (a fraction of the material that could be chosen, of course) are replete with crisp original songs (typically classically oriented, with musical settings that can also recall Stephen Sondheim, Philip Glass, and even the American Old South), composed by Gihieh Lee–in a virtual embarrassment of riches, the  lyrics are by Lorca, Wilde, Whitman and other Queer poets. Intricate video arts, using period photographs and contemporary illustrations, are by Jui Mao, Julie Casper Roth, and Kevin Price; electronic music is from the Los Angeles Laptop Collective and the set designer is Jung Griffin; the lighting design is by Erin EarleFleming.

Watch the production’s care regarding color (the opulent costumes are by Leon Wiebers, and memorably include striking tunics–his luxurious palette contains deep green and muted orange, cream, and neon yellow–feather headdresses, punk wigs, top hats, and even angel’s wings.  The visual richness is never mindlessly flamboyant or even excessively sexualized—in fact, part of Ahn’s point seems to be that gay love, often stereotyped as jaded, is based on innocence, not lasciviousness. From a historical perspective, as opposed to a psychological one, he apparently finds LGBTQ+ love simply an alternate response to life.  Of course, a self-identifying Eleanor Roosevelt would be the best kind of validation of her passions,  as well as primary-source records for the others–simply an impossibility–but this has nothing to do with the injustices made against the communities, as a whole, in the ancient world, the Sixth century, the East and West or, of course, now. (13 Fruitcakes is performed in Korean with supertitles—but some of the wording can be missed because of length, timing, density, or even because what goes on elsewhere, on stage, seems more vital).

The performance, an object of rare, complex and dark beauty, which unfurls from a dressing room, presents the superbly talented leading South Korean drag artist, ‘More’ Zimin, a thin, muscular dancer-singer-follies girl-lip-syncher Christ figure, who plays the central character, named Orlando (it is no coincidence that Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West also enter the narrative). He “encourages people to start fighting against social injustice and oppression by telling them stories about great gay ancestors.” The impressive vocal talents of Jayoung Jeong are also on display, as well as a surprising, anachronistic modern nightclub singer.  The young supporting cast, of eleven, “the Fruitcakes,” include Jiung Kim, Kyungrok Kim, Gihyun Lee, Junghoun Jun, Nayeon Kim, Hyunhee Kim, Yoojung Park, Jieun Lee, Bookyung Chung, Daegwon Hong, and Joowon Shin.

The evening, part of the Stonewall 50 at La Mama, begins in 1969, after the death of Judy Garland, a time especially resonant in this reviewer’s mind, because he was drawn to begin reading The Wizard of Oz, days before her suicide; apparently, the time was also important to others: “I did research on the Stonewall Riots,” Ahn writes, “people say somehow the air that day was different from before, even though it was a routine police raid, and on this occasion they did not submit to the police.” Wanting to recreate that “different air” for the stage, perhaps the stirring winds of change, Ahn has stayed at La MaMa, a living museum to the avant-garde, for two short a time—yet his work and activism, will be remembered, in chiaroscuro.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Theo Cote

13 FRUITCAKES

Director/Playwright: Byungkoo Ahn Composer: Gihieh Lee LA Laptop Collective Artistic Director: Martin Herman Music Director: Hanul Chae SARC General Director: Jayoung Jeong Associate Director: Kimun Kim Choreographer: Jaseung Won Open call curator/Video Arts Head: Inhye Lee Video Arts: Juyi Mao, Julie Casper Roth, Kevin Price Set Designer: Jung Griffin Lighting Designer: Erin EarleFleming Costume Designer: Leon Wiebers Production Assistant: Samara E. Huggins Orchestrator: Jiwon Hahn & Gihieh Lee Producer: Sujin Kim Gayakeumist: Rami SeoPianist: Yeseul Yoon, Eunbin Kim The Los Angeles Laptop Collective Martin Herman, Alysia Michelle James, Cameron Johnston, Tobias Banks, Glen Gray, Sean Martineau Jones, David García Saldaña, Seth Shafer

Tiger Party Interactive Agency Singing Actors Repertory Company Orlando: More Zimin Mighty Orlando: Jayoung Jeong Fruitcakes: Jiung Kim, Kyungrok Kim, Gihyun Lee, Junghoun Jun, Nayeon Kim, Hyunhee Kim, Yoojung Park, Jieun Lee, Bookyung Chung, Daegwon Hong, Joowon Shin

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