Visually, Wild Goose Dreams is one of the most arresting pieces of theatre in New York City this autumn. Clint Ramos’ all-encompassing design at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall is a riotous, vivid mash-up of graffiti, old photographs, neon signs, and detailed patterns, including all over the pillars.
The set includes a hidden river of water, a second level above the stage, and a runway coming out into the audience, which then fans right and left. One hopes this staging can be conserved in its own right as an artwork or installation long after the production is finished.
This brilliant collision of visual elements serves as an omnipresent symbolic point in Hansol Jung’s play, directed with great energy by Leigh Silverman, which is really about the insanely speeded up and fragmented world we all live in now thanks to the internet.
Before the story of the strange love affair between Guk Minsung (Peter Kim) and Yoo Nanhee (Michelle Krusiec) gets underway, the chorus (Dan Domingues, Lulu Fall, Kendyl Ito, Jaygee Macapugay, Joél Perez, Jamar Williams, Katrina Yaukey) recite—in the manner that they are clicked on—all the announcements and headlines of a typical click-a-thon online the two characters come across. They also voice all the malfunctions and disconnections of technology gone awry.
This is the universe of Ramos’ design, Palmer Hefferan’s sound design, and Silverman’s direction which contrasts the two life situations of Guk Minsung and Yoo Nanhee.
He is the ‘goose father’ of the title of the play, a devoted South Korean father who has stayed in that country to help fund his wife and daughter living in America. He hasn’t seen them for years, and via online chats and telephone calls has fallen into a sad and withered remote husband- and parenthood.
Yoo Nanhee, meanwhile, is a North Korean defector, now living in the South, and desperate to care for and maintain contact with her father (a marvelously arch and also sinister Francis Jue), who appears as a figment of her imagination. Yoo Nanhee imagines a lot, sometimes disastrously, just as Guk Minsung imagines a lot about his own family, sadly, and eventually disastrously.
Modern communication is the only thing keeping these two people wired to their immediate personal worlds, but Jung’s somewhat repetitive and not exactly original point is that modern technology is as disconnecting as it is connecting. The blarggh onslaught is relentless: lose weight, find love, some missiles might be fired, political newsflash, celebrity gossip, lose more weight.
Loneliness is what both Guk Minsung and Yoo Nanhee share as they embark on an affair, whose intimacy is as fraught as their communications with their loved ones. The stage floods red, and the chorus strikes up a collective melodious coo, every time the dating site they meet on flashes up. Yoo Nanhee worries about the harm her defection could bring (she summons up her father, a penguin appearing in a toilet bowl, and eventually penguin-faced North Korean soldiers in her nightmares).
Ramos and Silverman effectively evoke reality and dreamworlds, as Yoo Nanhee is haunted by the living ghost of her dad, while Guk Minsung has to put up with the scorn and grating American teenage-speak of his daughter.
Wild Goose Dreams is tender, whimsical, and secure in its eccentricities. It looks gorgeous and it is well-acted and performed. But our central couple never feel really cohesive as a couple. They are clinging to one another as a life raft; their real loves are elsewhere, and their initial meet-ups feel seedy and weird rather than cute and sexy.
These are two individuals trying to cheat tragedies and fates of different kinds; they themselves are a connection and disconnection in one sweet but dysfunctional unit. Their disconnect makes the last part of the play not as moving as it might have been had we been rooting for them. They shouldn't be together, and yet the play tries to build a romantic knot around them being apart.
The final crescendo of the play’s moral thesis against the emotional effects of online life comes when Guk Minsung sings a song to Yoo Nanhee, hoping she sees it when he posts it online. It is sad and tragic, and the response to it is a familiar cacophony of inhuman, mocking, bullying awfulness.
The marriage of love story to moral denunciation of the internet and our mass-enslavement to online life is not smooth in Wild Goose Dreams, and the play can't seem to progress past its initial talking points. But its engaging performances and the vividness of its design and staging make it stand out enough to give you pause about turning your phone back on after the show ends—for five minutes, at least.
Wild Goose Dreams is at Martinson Hall, Public Theater, until December 16.