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.