This is a review of Kim’s Convenience the theater play (very minor spoilers) but will also briefly mention some elements of the TV show for comparison, which I saw first. The play opened this past Wednesday and continues its engagement until March 19 in Montreal at the Segal Centre. It’s produced by Soulpepper, created & written by Ins Choi and directed by Weyni Mengesha with set & costume design by Ken Mackenzie.
Also as an aside, the theater play will make its US debut this July in New York!
The play starts off with Mr. Kim aka Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) walking into the store. If you’ve seen the TV show, he’s the familiar genial Appa with his jokes and accent but I would say there’s a bit more to him in the play, which is not restricted by TV rules. Much of the first act is comedy as he and his daughter Janet (Rosie Simon) clash and argue over various topics. There is early mention of a Walmart arriving soon and an offer to buy the convenience store from a customer. This is more background info as the main theme of the play is intergenerational conflict between parents and their adult children. Mrs. Kim aka Umma (Jean Yoon) appears from time to time often humming a tune. The fourth member of the family, Jung (Richard Lee), is however not around the store at all, having left the store/home many years previously due to a past incident.
One of the first arguments begins when Appa asks Janet to call 911 about an illegally parked Honda because it’s a Japanese car and he holds a grudge against Japan due to its past history of occupation of Korea. Later on when a customer with a Carribean accent comes into the store there’s an amusing confusion of different accents which leads into some race issues. Appa tries to “educate” Janet on which combinations of race, gender, sexuality will mean a customer is likely to steal. Some of these jokes will be familiar to TV show watchers but there are some differences. In fact, I find they work better in the play because unlike the TV show which tries to stretch some of these jokes into themes for an entire episode, they’re maybe one or two liners in the play.
Umma has a smaller role in the play when compared to Appa and Janet. But she is great when given the time. Her talk with Jung is moving as he expresses frustrations and regrets with his life. I was hoping for more Umma in the play but that’s one advantage of the TV show, which gives her more screen time and allows her to be a more fully realized character. Jung’s time based on the story is also similarly limited but a bit less so. Umma does get to do a bit of comedy whereas Jung is mainly limited to serious scenes.
For those who complained about Appa and Umma speaking English to each other on the TV show then you should watch the play. In all scenes with Umma and Appa, they speak Korean to each other and since this is a play, there are no subtitles but based on the acting and context you can guess what they are talking about. Those who understand Korean may get more out of it but nothing (AFAIK) is really lost for those of us who don’t.
As the story progresses, deep-rooted feelings bubble to the surface. Light, almost childish bickering gives way to more serious arguments that hit at egos and past history. There’s one scene between Appa and Janet where she asks him for her day planner and it escalates into a heated argument of who owes what to whom. It’s a transformation from comedy to serious, angry intensity where Appa in particular becomes scary mad. This scene felt particularly powerful to me and P. Lee and Simon make this scene feel so real. You can sympathize with both sides and you can relate to how it’s hard to handle such things in a civil manner even when you don’t agree with how each person is expressing themselves. Another argument involves these two with an assist from Alex (Ronnie Rowe Jr), a policeman. This one’s more of a see-saw of emotion and laughs with full-blown shouts of pain both emotionally and physically due to arm bars being applied.
The play really excels at these different ways of balancing comedy and drama. The actors are totally game for the snappy dialogues, back and forth zingers and changes in emotion. P. Lee’s amazing performance is integral to the play’s success, it just wouldn’t work without him and his talent (it will be hard for the next actor to live up to it too). But that’s not to diminish the other performers, Simon holds her own opposite P. Lee. Whereas Appa is more dramatic with the funny stuff, Simon plays it more level-headed often acting as the “straight man.” She expresses a range of emotion when she gets frustrated/angry with Appa and awkward/flirty with Alex but never goes out of bounds into exaggeration. Her performance is maybe not as noticeable but excellent nonetheless and just as essential to the play’s success. Janet is 30 years of age in the play so she’s older than her TV counterpart who is early 20s.
Ronnie Rowe Jr plays three (or maybe four) different supporting characters. The ones I remember are the customer who offers to buy the store, the customer with a Caribbean accent who denies “teefin” (thiefing / stealing) from the store and finally the policeman, Alex, who was childhood friends with Janet and Jung. He does an excellent job in all the roles with Alex being the most substantial. Obviously, he wears different clothes for each role but he changes his posture and voice too. He easily portrays separate characters that you practically forget it’s the same actor. As Alex, he talks very strictly as an officer but then shows his tongue tied side when meeting Janet again. Not only does he start out by referring to “planet” Janet but also says how he didn’t think much of her when they were kids. Despite such unflattering comments, he manages to score a “sorta” date. Their verbal exchanges are really funny and at times, jittery. You get much more of Janet and Alex interaction in the play than in the TV show, which is great. It gets even better when Appa “supervises.”
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the last scene involves Jung and Appa, who quizzes him on various important historical events in Korean history over the years while never missing an opportunity to take a jab at Japan like when Kim Yuna won over “that Japanese skater.” The biggest difference between the play and the TV show is Jung. His story is darker here than in the TV show (at least according to what has been revealed so far), which makes his relationship with Appa much more compelling to me. It’s what haunts both of them. Will there be a reconciliation? That’s where you go out and watch the play to find out.
One slightly disappointing thing is that Janet and Jung don’t share any scenes or interact with each other. The play as is, has a solid structure so it’s hard to say how such scenes could’ve been inserted without disrupting the flow and pacing. The play runs at about one and a half hours without intermission and to me that is appropriate. Janet and Jung do interact on the TV show but it’s not the same since TV Jung is very different from stage play Jung.
This one’s more of a nitpick but you’d think both Appa and Janet would know not to dial 911 for something like an illegally parked car. It’s funny how this is integral to introducing Alex, the policeman, into the play. It could’ve been rewritten but would’ve also taken away a few jokes. Alex’s intro is done in a different and more believable way in the TV show.
I recommend the theater play wholeheartedly without reservations. I don’t feel like I have to over-hype it because it has Asian Canadians and I’m afraid that if I don’t then we’ll never see a work with Asian Canadians ever again. Kim’s Convenience isn’t necessarily great because it’s showing an under-represented ethnic group. It’s great because it’s well written and well acted. It presents everyday situations in life and appeals with universal themes and memorable characters. It just happens to accomplish this with a Korean-Canadian family of immigrant parents and 1st generation kids.
Some side notes…
I’m not sure whether the ticket pricing is relatively constant across different cities but for this show at the Segal Center, regular priced tickets are $60 plus fees with discounts for under 30, students and seniors.
As someone who cannot even remember the last theater play I attended I was surprised to learn that even though you walk into the theater room to see a really nice stage set of the Kim’s Convenience store, lighted up and all, you are not allowed to take photos even though the show has not started and there are no actors on stage. The reason is copyright. A photo even if it’s never distributed is considered an unpermitted reproduction of the set design. It’s to prevent people from copying the set design. Fine but it begs the question, if this is such a concern why are there no stage curtains to hide the set before showtime? Who exactly is spending all this time and effort recreating stage sets and raking in the profits? High schools? Copyright is important but I think this is straining it. I can take a photo inside a convenience store but not of a set that’s made to look like the inside of a convenience store, okay then…
The Saturday show was almost sold out, maybe less than 10 unoccupied seats. The majority of the audience were older Caucasians. Although I’m not surprised, I didn’t notice any other Asians (although I know there was at least two others based on twitter posts). It is a shame that Asian Canadians in Montreal don’t seem to support works with Asian Canadians, especially when there are so few works and even fewer that come to Montreal.