Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen (Figure 1) is a contemporary American play staged for a Korean audience about the twentieth-century Korean poet Yi Sang (born Kim Haegyeong, 1910-1937). Yi Sang was a self-proclaimed "genius poet" during Korea's Japanese colonial period whose work was little understood. Beginning with his "Twelfth of December" (1930) and As the Raven Flies (Ogamdo, 1931 in Japanese and 1934 in Korean) and continuing with prose works The Wings (Nalgae, 1936) and Chronicle at the End of Life (Chongsaenggi, 1937), his writing baffled his contemporaries. His surrealistic poems were non-sensical, abstract, daring in their deconstruction of reality, and as odd as his adopted name, Yi Sang, which means "strange" in Korean. He was a lonely modernist who has been posthumously recognized as the preeminent surrealist that he was.
Blue (played by Shin Dong Ryuk) sits alone in front of the screen, which shows an image of a Tokyo street in Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen. (Photo: Courtesy of Warehouse Theatre)
Korean American playwright Sung Rno, a poet and experimental modernist himself with an MFA from Brown and numerous fellowships and awards, and avant-garde director Lee Breuer worked in unison to recreate Yi Sang's artistic world on stage during the author's residency at Mabou Mines. They took their production to the Seoul International Theatre Festival in 2000. Although Breuer considers that first production of Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen to have been totally unsatisfactory, ongoing interest in his work by Korean artists resulted in his return to Korea in 2009 to redirect the play. Jung Dae Kyung, of Warehouse Theatre 31, invited Breuer and Rno. Jianwoks Gagaeheori Incorporation in Seoul provided $75,000 for the creation of the new version. For this Seoul production, Breuer worked with a Korean team of major actors, designers, and visual artists. Rno modified the play for a Korean audience by translating it into Korean and adding contemporary Korean slang, and Breuer completely reconceived the staging in collaboration with the Korean artists, including set designer Paek Ji Hee.
Breuer's aesthetic—which mixes a stylistic range, meticulous choreography, and powerful visual images—perfectly realized Rno's fifteen-scene play, which was inspired by Yi Sang's surrealistic poems. Together Breuer and Rno created a production that engraved stunning images from Yi Sang's world of poems on the spectators' minds and planted the poet's deep solitude into the spectators' hearts. Korean audiences were mesmerized by the production, which ran for more than a month.
Artist Paek Ji Hee designed the small seven- by six-meter stage. A screen spanning the entire rear of the stage is used for digital projections. A hydraulic lift over half the size of the stage rises to create a large central platform. Two wide venetian blinds suspended above it shut and open to reveal action on the platform. Another hydraulic lift at the rear of stage right allows actors to enter and exit the stage from above. Two stagehands in black open and close the blinds, give actors props, and sometimes film live images of the actors projected on the screen. Three male actors—Lee Chang Soo, Shin Dong Ryuk, and Lim Young Joon—play the narrator (Yi Sang) and the characters Blue and Red, respectively. Actress Kim So Jin plays Green. Blue represents Yi Sang's inner self. Red is Yi Sang's best friend, Koo Bon Heong, and Green is his lover, Kum Hong. Red and Green also portray other characters that exist in Yi Sang's poems.
The production consists of three acts. The first is about Yi Sang's life, including a scene where Blue (Yi Sang) first meets Kum Hong, a Korean kisaeng (female entertainer-prostitute) with whom he falls in love. In another scene Blue witnesses his best friend, Red, and his lover having an affair in his apartment. The second act moves inside Yi Sang's imagination, where abstract and mysterious thought involving body parts dwell. Some images are drawn from Yi Sang's "Poem XIII" in As the Raven Flies: "Holding the razorblade my arms became severed and fell off. Looking closer I see how...