MONTGOMERY, Ala.—As ticket takers at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival nudged the crowd of some 300 ticketholders to their seats one recent evening, they promised the show, Nanta, “a cooking event,” would begin at 7:30.
It was a lie, but not a mean one, a southern one—a partial story light on facts. The setup ensured everyone would sit down for a round of homage-paying to the person whose company has sponsored many of the plays held here, one of the nation’s top regarded Shakespearean playhouses.
In an instant, cocktail sales collapsed, triggering the quick chugging of half-consumed drinks.
Inside the theater, some swells already were lined up across the stage to pour praise onto Young Deuk Lim, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama. Upon coming here in 2002, the Korean company forged a civic partnership with the city by helping fund the arts, particularly plays performed at ASF.
Though he apparently speaks no English, Lim nodded and grinned appropriately as he accepted three framed plaques presented by state, city and county officials. It was an undeclared battle between each official for the title of “Most Obsequious”; Alabama’s treasurer, Young Boozer (yes, his real name, and his father and son bear the same moniker) Montgomery’s mayor, Todd Strange, and the county commissioner, Elton Dean, pledged in succession, that that day, that week and the remaining sweaty month of July would be Hyundai Day, Week and Month in Montgomery.
To be fair, it was a joke created and evolved on the spot, but it was long on build-up and short on punch lines for peeps itching for the real performance.
The gag also likely was lost on the ever-smiling Korean car captain, who eventually strode to the podium, translator beside, to share his remarks and acknowledge showers of polite clapping. Tedious as such outpourings are, they’re the right thing to do for large companies that commonly and thanklessly foot the bills for societal privileges often taken for granted.
At a few minutes after 8, the swells mercifully departed and let Nanta begin. (Click here to see a YouTube short that does the real thing little justice.) It’s a three-act story about four slacker cooks in a Korean restaurant who’d rather flirt, dance and make clever and rhythmic cacophony with their knives, whisks, bowls and brooms than prep for a wedding dinner set to start in 90 minutes. Except for just a few words, the play is non-verbal, thus broadening its proven universal appeal. In its decade-long run, it’s been seen by millions and performed in 40 countries.
Nanta is not heady. It’s lighthearted in theme and storyline, but visually and sonically dazzling, especially in its use of kitchen tools as percussion instruments. Call it a mashup of Top Chef, Blue Man Group, Power Puff Girls and the Marx Brothers, a mixture of skilled dancing and timing, entertaining sight gags and techno-touches that occasionally give it the feel of an animé cartoon—an unusual play, er, um, event, indeed for such a classic and prestigious playhouse as the ASF.
Though the Bard’s work forms the core of ASF’s productions, it also puts on Broadway musicals, children’s shows and American classics. For a city any size, much less that of Montgomery (pop. 225,000), it’s an extraordinary venue.
Founded in 1972, the ASF flourished in the unlikely and mostly blue collar locale. But by the 1980s, it hit a financial rough patch and was nearly bankrupt.
Yet as so often happens, a wealthy family stepped in to save the day with a dousing of dollars. Wynton and Carolyn Blount’s cash infusion included a commitment to constructing a new home for the Festival on a 250-acre park complex—a feat not possible in a city house. That dream came to fruition in 1985 with the construction of a $21.5 million theater set among rolling grounds manicured to the fastidious perfection of an English garden.
According to the Festival’s website, the Blounts’ gift of the theatre complex was the largest single donation in the history of American theatre, and the company has remained financially sound ever since. (Need this nation any more proof that rich people are truly horrible sorts? Such dastardly deeds done by the 1 Percent! Tax ‘em until they’re broke!)
The structure houses two theatres (the 792-seat Festival Stage and the 262-seat Octagon), production shops and rehearsal halls. Our quick tour of the facilities earlier that day, including rooms where sets, props and costumes are custom-made, was impressive, a “Who knew?” experience for a theater ignoramus like this writer.
That a terrific “event” like Nanta played that night is both a tip of the hat to Lim’s Korean heritage and the broadmindedness of the ASF board. Thankfully, Louisville’s theater companies are similarly contemporary in their offerings.
I’m not a theater critic, so don’t expect a review, but I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it highly. Doubtless the Tony Awards committee deemed something so raucous and unusual as unworthy of its hardware, but it is fun, family entertainment done creatively. And if it ever comes to Louisville, I’d see it again.
I’ll just not take my seat until the curtain rises.
Editor’s note: Steve Coomes spent a week traveling throughout Alabama on a press tour. This account and others to follow describe a slice of what he found.