Cooking, dancing and magic tricks



There are five terrific chefs in the show called “Cookin’” that’s tearing up the pea patch (thank you, Red Barber) at the Minetta Lane, but the one you really can’t take your eyes off is the only female, a young woman listed on the program as Hot Sauce. And boy, does she live up to that appellation.

In truth, they all do: Won Hae Kim as the Master Chef; tall, skinny, goofy Ho Yeoul Sul as Sexy Food Dude; Kang Il Kim as the haughty, exacting Manager, or maitre d’; and Rum Chan Lee as the manager’s nephew, who’s eager as all get out to join the team — but can he cook?

Cookin’ is what these five people do — cookin’ up a rhythmic storm with pots, pans, lids, dishes, knives, forks, wire whisks, woks, chopsticks, chopping blocks, brushes, jugs, water canisters, stoves, trash baskets, garbage pails, tables, and anything and everything else that comes to hand in this Korean kitchen come to Off-Broadway.

They also interject some high-velocity dancing, praying, juggling, dueling, magic tricks, Frisbee-spinning (with plates), joking around (not in English) with the audience, and at one point Hot Sauce punctuates the proceedings with a cartwheel on a broomstick. Also, if I’m not mistaken, with some simulated romantic ardor.

Her real name is Chu Ja Seo, she was born in Seoul in 1973, and she too has no English — until you ask Sunny Oh, the company’s executive producer and all-purpose translator, to ask her what’s her background as a performer, and in the midst of the girl’s rapid-fire reply in Korean there pops the fairly recognizable word: “Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare? “Yes,” she says, again in English. “King Lear.” Oh, were you Ophelia? “No. Wanted to,” she says with a laugh and a shrug. “But I was chorus. Sorry. I was 22.” And she bows to the interviewer.

At two points in the Saturday matinee I saw last weekend — maybe 15 percent of the audience was small, enthralled children — “volunteers” were plucked out of the seats and brought up on stage to participate in (1) a soup-tasting, (2) The Dumpling Challenge.

In both instances, the draftees fitted amiably and proficiently into the works, giving the steaming-hot soup thumbs up and, to one’s amazement, cranking out and with glee keeping score of the dumplings for some minutes after the five chefs had snuck off the stage and left the visitors up there alone.

“Cookin’” was thought up by, and is directed by, Seung Whan Song, a stage, film, and television actor famous throughout South Korea (north too, for all I know). Now in his early 50s, Song got his start as an actor at age 7, and started producing and directing plays in 1985, but as time went on he began to feel constricted by language and geography.

It was in 1996, says translator Sunny Oh (real name Sung Ho), that “Mr. Song decided he wanted to make a non-verbal, high-energy, universal-language show that could be taken out of Korea” into the world.

When, on a visit to New York, Song dropped in at the British percussion show “Stomp,” he suddenly saw how to do it, and was flooded with memories from childhood of the clatterings in the kitchen when his mother was preparing a dinner.

“So many things can make sound in a kitchen,” says Sunny Oh. “Also, kitchen is universal. Everybody eats.”

Traditional Korean music, called Nong-ak, and a more contemporary Korean music for drums and gongs, Samulnori (which means “playing with four instruments”), went into the 1997 creation by Song of a show called Nanta (meaning “Crazy Beat”) that set everybody crazy and sold out for one month at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

It has since played to more than one million Koreans in two theaters in Seoul, and to audiences in more than 20 countries around the world, including a sold-out month in this country, at the Victory Theater on 42nd Street, last September.

“Everybody angry they couldn’t get in,” says Sunny Oh, “so we thought a long run was needed.”

So, obviously, did Simone Genatt Haft, the New Yorker who in 1998 went over to Seoul (“I agreed to go for 24 hours”) to see whether she and her partner Marc Routh, and their Broadway Asia Company, should be interested in this new percussion hit. (It was Routh who had brought “Stomp” here.)

“I saw the spark of something brilliant with this fabulous chopping-table section,” she says, and within those same 24 hours sat down until 4 a.m. with Seung Whan Song to work out a structure and plot built around “these four crazy Korean chefs having to prepare a wedding banquet before the clock strikes 6.”

Chu Ja Seo got her job by going to an audition in Daehakru, the Seoul theater district.

“I didn’t know nothing,” she says. “Had to learn everything. Like ballet lessons. Learned to play instruments, learned Korean rhythms, everything.”

She first actually came to New York in 1999, even before Edinburgh, when Song brought the company here to work for a month with an American crew — “but no performances.”

The four chefs — five, with the maitre d’ — are actors, not musicians.

“Everybody had to learn,” says Oh. “Not just music, but juggling, cooking, acting, comedy, chopping with knives. A certain risk. Mr. Song found it very hard for musicians to learn, so he called for actors.”

The vegetables this theatergoer saw being chopped — very rapidly and rhythmically chopped — included onions, cabbages, cucumbers.

Anybody been hurt?

“Not yet,” says the Sunny one.

There are now six teams of actors altogether — four in Korea, where the show is still playing twice a day, nonstop, seven days a week, and two here.

Chu Ja Seo, when asked, says: “All these guys are my close friends, but not any special intimate relations. Would be bad for the show.”

Would she like to do more things in America?

“Yes, if there is opportunity. Have long way to go.”

Keep chopping, kid. America will come to you.