Location, location, location. The space individuals and histories occupy, the places immigrants and their descendants are indebted to, the stories that disappear when their owners die — in Celine Song’s play “Endlings,” the burdens and possibilities of storytelling all boil down to real estate.
Directed by UC Berkeley alumnus May Liang, Oakland Theater Project’s production in association with Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company is the West Coast premiere of “Endlings.” The play tells the story of three haenyeos, elderly Korean women who dive into the ocean for fish, and takes place on the remote island of Man-Jae. This narrative makes an unexpected connection with the plights of a playwright in Manhattan who feels the brunt of writing about the inheritance of immigration. The small space of OTP’s theater at FLAX art & design works in the story’s favor, as the intimate setting helps blur the lines between performance and experience — themes that the script’s meta sensibilities directly confront.
The three haenyeos are the last divers of their legacy, the endlings who pine for death and wonder who will tell their stories when they’re gone. Playwright Ha Young directly takes on this task, but in the context of the white-dominated world of theater, carrying this legacy proves more complicated than simply writing a script.
Keiko Shimosato Carreiro stands out in her performance as 96-year-old Han Sul, the oldest of the hanyeos with an affinity for television — “Hollywood forever!” is her repeated catchphrase. Along with Mia Tagano as Go Min and Pauli N. Amornkul as Sook Ja, the three haenyeos subvert expectations of elderly women, as they speak frankly about sex, death and childrearing with colorful language and crass humor. Considering the lack of nuanced stories about aging women, these performances are refreshing and deeply funny.
As Ha Young, who writes self-professed “white plays,” Joyce Domanico-Huh charts an array of impressive emotional territories, bringing a highly physical performance to portray the unhinged nature of a frustrated artist while also having the ability to tone things down and show genuine vulnerability.
Lines blur in “Endlings” as characters become spectators, playwright becomes critic and the audience itself is brought into the performance. In the program, “White Stage Managers” are credited as acting roles. Sitting in the audience in a theater with no curtain, one considers where the boundaries between performance and behind-the-scenes lie, if they even exist at all. In the final monologues where the haenyeos’ draw to the ocean is implicitly compared to a playwright’s draw to theater, audiences are left with the question: Is everything performance?
As it pushes these theoretical boundaries of performance, the production thrives in its imagination. Creative lighting choices transform the stage to an underwater scene, with the haenyeos floating about. Ha Young and her White Husband join the audience to watch a white play entreating white prayers to a white God. “Let me just exist. This is interesting to everyone,” the white actors satirically proclaim. It is in these scenes that creative set design shines — a dance break featuring a giant turtle and a clam puppet show create a whimsical world where nothing is as it seems.
In a play that is so meta, however, sometimes the storytelling can get muddy. Song’s script asks if it’s possible to recognize diasporic writing pitfalls while still embracing the thematic content. “Endlings” has its cake and eats it too, which is maybe the point, but some of the satire undermines the emotional effect. The haenyeos compel with their stories that dispel expectations about aging women, about the virtue of work, about lives and legacy. The power of these histories, however, is diminished when they instead serve to contextualize Ha Young’s story in Manhattan — a narrative leap that never quite closes the gap. In the final scene, Han Sul and Ha Young deliver parallel narratives to show the relationship between young and old, endling and immigrant, but not all of these comparisons feel earned.
Despite these narrative hiccups, OTP’s “Endlings” captivates with strong acting performances and compelling questions about the nature of theater itself.