For a compelling depiction of power, corruption, needless death and unbridled lust, look no further than the Street Theater Troupe’s production of Lee Yun-taek’s Three Beautiful Soulmates.
“Too much knowledge makes you blind,” opines an old realist, Lee Kyu-bo (frenetically portrayed by Han Gab-soo) after he has conquered his drunkenness and gone back to writing. How at odds with the more fabled expression “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Is either true? Yet Alexander Pope’s quotation—more ironic and at one with the previous behaviour of the intellectual Lee—is the remainder of the section from his essay on criticism: “drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”
Over the course of its seven scenes, the quest by three idealistic monks to use reason over brute force sends each of them down a wholly different path.
They don’t walk unaccompanied: Park Sung-hwan’s dynamically and mono-melodically rich score (with special mention of Yeon Ji-en’s sensitive chordal work and masterfully controlled vibrato) enhances each scene or changes the mood with a commitment that flies in the face of the treacherous characters it supports. Fascinating is an early melody and its coincidental echo of Brahms’ most famous lullaby.
For Manjeon (played with searing passion and brutality by Chang Jae-ho) the trek is soon adulterated with blatant and raw use of his “protruding bone in the middle of … the body”—fantastically accompanied by Mission Impossible five-to-the-bar metre from the terrifically energetic band of musicians—and matricide as he dispatches his stepmother with his gleaming sword.
Gilsang (Shin Hyun-seo) drops theology and becomes a revolutionary to bring his revised view of justice to the world. But his assassination gig goes horribly wrong: he ends up the victim. His sword as impotent as Lee’s desire for peace
Tongsugi (Lee Seng-Heon, whose descent into bottomless despair personifies the “beauty of the empty sky”) opts to pursue the power of the written word and painstakingly labours in the compilation of Tripitaka Koreana—at 6,500 volumes it’s a Herculean task.
While the story focuses on the journey of the three men, director Nam Mi-jeong takes a broad view and lets this production (and its able cast) rise and fall like the Yellow Sea. At the peaks (the early-on lust dance, the magnificent spectacle of the autumn festival, the eerie depiction of chaos—thanks in no small measure to Park Kyoung’s sets and Cho In-gon’s effective lighting plot) this production packs a punch that will remain in memory for weeks. The only chinks in the considerable armour are the frequently untogether choral contributions and some vagaries of pitch from some of the leads. On just a couple of occasions, the electronically reinforced music is suddenly truncated rather allowed to fade gracefully away.
In the quieter moments, there is much to reflect on. After the bare-chested allure and heat of the warriors’ love dance in the “Dumb Show,” the return of the masks and the slower pace cools things off on both sides of the footlights.
Most magical of all is the birth of Yuma, fathered by Tongsugi and the teasing beauty turned hooker, Anan (thoughtfully rendered by Kim So-hee). The blind Buddha-like wooden creature epitomizes the devastation and metamorphosis of both his parents. The closing image of this unlikely family moving into the mists of time is a theatrical tour de force for all concerned. From idolatry to addiction to brazen grabs for control of others (militarily or sexually), the ideas raised from this historical fable are bubbling up again and again as the world continues to “progress.” As the quest by one of the doomed trio to become the “greatest monk in the world” proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, there’s nothing blinder than ambition. JWR