Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: Kim's Convenience

I saw 25 plays in this year's Fringe, which is a pretty decent number considering I worked a full-time job and missed five days of the festival. I of course won't review my own show, Mute, but 24 reviews are coming up, particularly now that I'm not constantly at shows or at work! It was a very good festival for me this year; I enjoyed everything at least to some extent, and though I saw some seriously flawed pieces, I saw no true duds that I regretted. Onward to Review #1!

A combination of aggressive buzz and a particularly polished advertising campaign convinced me to check out Kim’s Convenience, by Ins Choi, as soon as possible. This proved to be a good decision, as the line for its inaugural Toronto Fringe show, at 6:30 on a Wednesday, stretched down the block; almost a sellout of the fest’s largest venue on the first day. The buzz is justified. Kim’s Convenience is one of those rare fringe shows that feels finished and professional. It would not be out of place treading the boards of Passe Muraille or Tarragon during their fall seasons (if this makes any sense, it feels like it’s a Passe Muraille-themed show with Tarragon writing).

This is not to say that it is a perfect show. But it is a show with a very clear purpose, an excellent cast, and writing so crackling and witty that you hardly notice the sadness at the core of the play; that is, until it sneaks up on you with its full emotional weight, just in time for a satisfying resolution. Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), a street-smart, wisecracking man fiercely proud of his Korean heritage, has run a convenience store in Regent Park for more than thirty years. But condos are going up, and so is a Wal-Mart, and the sense that the area’s character will soon be forever changed fuels the play’s urgency. Faced with a tempting offer to sell by his “black friend with a Korean last name,” Mr. Lee, Kim faces the possibility of retirement coming with the trade-off of losing his presence in the neighbourhood, and therefore “his story.”

Mr. Kim’s daughter (Esther Jun), 30 and “single and ready to mingle” according to her parents, is more interested in photography than taking over the family business; her interest is piqued less by her father’s offer than by the appearance of Alex (Andre Sills, who also effectively plays the rest of the bit parts of Mr. Lee and several customers), a childhood friend of her estranged older brother (Choi), who shows up with a new sense of responsibility on his shoulders. Mother (Jean Yoon), is upset about the loss of the last downtown Korean church and holds clandestine meetings with her son, who has a new child of his own and feels trapped in a terrible job thanks to some bad choices in his past.

Kim’s commanding presence centres the show; a man who has clear love for his family buried under a gruff, violent, sometimes hilariously racist and blustering exterior. All the actors are excellent; even Yoon, who is given the least to do verbally, silently speaks volumes about her story and her pain. Family relationships are made instantly clear and recognizable, particularly in the sparring matches between father and daughter. This is a fun, incisive exploration of culture clash and the difficult time different generations have of seeing eye-to-eye, particularly immigrants and their Canadian-born children. It’s a testament to the strength of the acting that even sizable stretches of dialogue in Korean need absolutely no translation.

Dramaturgically, the play is tight, and every moment is there for a very specific reason. However, the arc of the son’s story feels too short. Though it is powerful to initially have his absence keenly felt by the other characters, his story is so important to the play and its resolution that it seems rushed when we find out who he really is two-thirds of the way through. To experience his presence and his story (as he tells it) earlier would lend extra power to his interactions with other characters. He’s a rich character already, and this would make his progression more complete. The play particularly cries out for brother and sister to have a conversation, which is also absent. Kim’s Convenience could transfer easily to a theatre as-is, but it’s also a piece that I’d be interested in seeing in an expanded, two-act incarnation, which Ins Choi’s world could easily support.

I’d tell you to go see Kim’s Convenience, but I have no idea how you’re going to get a ticket (come very early, is my advice). If you can’t make it, don’t worry; I have a sneaking suspicion that Kim’s story is going to have a future elsewhere.



  1. Wow, I'm glad I stumbled upon your awesome blog! I saw 25 shows too and was thinking of writing up some post-Fringe reviews from a playwright's perspective (not unlike a dramaturge) on what could be improved and what works from my POV. Hope to hear more of your thoughts!

    As for Kim's Convenience (my favourite Fringe play next to "Headscarf" - so anything I say is not likely to improve it per se) I quasi-agree with your assessment that "the arc of the son’s story feels too short." IMO the rushed feeling is because there's so much more detail in the other arcs/plotlines. Other Fringe reviews have pointed out the daughter + cop storyline to be a bit trivial or easily bow-tied. Valid point also.

    The main question I ask is - whose story is this? Mr. Kim's or the son's? If it's Kim's then I want a little less of the son alone with mother and more about news of the son affecting him earlier - which influences his "sell or no sell" decision making. If it's the son's story then I prefer to see him earlier in the play because currently he's inserted so late and weirdly has one of the strongest motivations in the play (he's the most desperate of all characters).

    The father-son reconcillation is a bit too easy and Kim's choice to hand over the store to his son should be fretted over to provide dramatic impact. Giving up the store means losing a chunk of his personal history, but can he trust his once drugged out son? The ending works as-is, but it's a bit Hollywood-ish.

    Personally, there's a bit of "air" in this 5-star play due to the numerous jokes and the monologues. I suffer from theatre ADD so I'm instantly bored when the drama drops. Disclaimer: I despise shows that are all gags with no compelling plot. I might as well watch improv or stand-up.

    As-is the plot-lines don't fully mesh up too. Daughter never interacts with son. The cop never meets the son (his old friend). So much could be at stake when they do meet - extra complications, we learn about their histories directly, etc. If it sounds like I'm trashing the play, I'm not. It's fucking fantastic. I want to see win a Governer General's award and in my opinion to do that it needs to glue some of the plots together.

  2. Hi Nelson,

    Thanks so much for your kind words and thoughtful comments! You've put into words a lot of what I felt was missing from an already excellent play. I really think with some development, the answer to "whose story is this?" and some further character interactions, the team could have an even more awesome play on their hands! I'm going to have a few more reviews up soon; if there's any crossover between what we've seen, I hope you'll respond. :)