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The Canadian theatre company makes its U.S. debut with a jam-packed monthlong festival
What award-winning stage comedy was turned into a primetime sitcom that was recently renewed for its second season? If you said Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts, you're right…but there's another show that qualifies: Ins Choi's Kim's Convenience, a Canadian crowd-pleaser turned popular TV series that was a stage success for Soulpepper theatre company. The play is just one of the dozen offerings that comprise Soulpepper on 42nd Street, a monthlong takeover of the Pershing Square Signature Center, which marks the Toronto-based troupe's U.S. debut.
In order to give New Yorkers a taste of the wide variety of programming this 19-year-old company mounts, the lineup includes concerts, cabarets, ensemble creations, and three full-fledged mainstage productions: an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's classic novel Of Human Bondage; a musicalization of Edgar Lee Masters' poetry anthology Spoon River; and the aforementioned Kim's Convenience about Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), a Korean immigrant toiling away at his Toronto convenience store in order to support his family. Playwright Choi, who appears as Appa's troubled son Jung, originally self-produced the show at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival where it was a runaway hit. Soon Soulpepper was prepping it for a professional run, which led to a tour and, eventually, the eponymous TV show. The incredible trajectory of the piece was a bit ironic since Choi had previously completed a two-year paid apprenticeship at Soulpepper Academy, but was not invited to join the troupe afterward like some of his classmates.
That rejection was part of what inspired Choi to shift his focus to another of his talents: playwriting. "I got fed up with the casting process," he admits. His change of direction was also influenced by his desire to see a different representation of Asian identity on stage. "The only Asian theatre I saw was all tragic," he says. "It was all hardships -- great stories and amazing -- but everyone was crying all the time. In my life, my family is fun and jokes around a lot. I felt like I wanted to represent another color."
In addition to Kim's Convenience, Choi co-created and co-stars in a pair of ensemble pieces at Soulpepper on 42nd Street: Alligator Pie, a whimsical revue for families based on the poems of Fraggle Rock lyricist Dennis Lee, and the more grown-up Re(Birth) inspired by the writing of e e cummings.
Not to imply that it's all the Choi show. Soulpepper's monthlong residency features a whopping 65 participating artists including monologist James Smith and his meditation on mental illness Lessons in Temperament; multimedia maven Pamela Mala Sinha's exploration of trauma Crash; and Ravi Jain's autobiographical tale of an attempted arranged marriage A Brimful of Asha, which he performs with his real-life non-actor mother. Other highlights include True North, a patriotic concert for Canada; New York - The Melting Pot, a musical love letter to our city; and Cage, an experimental piece about avant-garde composer John Cage.
Although it remains to be seen whether Soulpepper on 42nd Street will spark an ongoing cultural exchange between the Canadian company and its New York City peers, Choi -- who took a break as writer and executive producer for the sitcom he spawned in order to be part of this festival -- plans to make the most of this experience. "I think this opportunity will only come to me once in my lifetime: to perform in New York," he says. "And I had to write the play in order to cast myself."
Drew Pisarra's theatre experiences range from ventriloquist (Singularly Grotesque) to librettist (The World Is Round), choreographer (Ladies' Voices) to master of ceremonies (White Wines). Follow him on Twitter at @mistermysterio. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Ins Choi in Kim's Convenience. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.