Paradoxical as it may seem, "Hahoe," the curious conglomeration of Korean performance arts presented for the first of four evenings at Marvin Theater last night, was at once interesting and boring, at least from a a naive Western standpoint. The interest devolved from the colorful aspects of Korean folk tradition that formed the basis of the performance. The cause of the boredom was simple enough -- the inscrutability of a strange and symbolically intricate narrative when rendered in a language unknown to the spectator.
The point of departure for the performance is an exhibition, currently on view at the George Washington University library, of nine handsomely wrought, 11th century ritual masks from the Korean village of Hahoe (the exhibited masks are actually replicas of the originals in the National Museum of Seoul). Around these masks, director-choreographer Hyunjoo Oh and playwright Taesok Oh have fashioned a three-part diversion using elements of drama, dance, mime and music.
In a brief introduction, the performance group (calling itself Tahl) introduces the masks in a simple choric dance. The second part is a playlet in five scenes of the origin of the masks: the young man Heo is commissioned by the gods to sculpt the masks, but he breaks sacred toboos in order to save the life of his sweetheart and dies before he can complete his artistic task. The last part of the performance offers a modern version of a portion of the ancient Hahoe masked dance, which is a satirical scene involving a squabble between a country squire and a scholar.
Despite some striking costumes, and the mimetic eloquence of the principal actors, the language barrier proved formidable -- a long subplot involving rival good and evil goddesses, for instance, was virtually unintelligible even with the help of program notes. The one exception was the scene of Heo's sacrifice -- the pathos of the situation transcended verbal bounds. This was also the scene that underscored most heavily the link between "Hahoe" and Western mythology; in particular, the Orpheus legend. Like Orpheus, Heo is an artist-hero who violates divine command while attempting to rescue his beloved. Unfortunately, the universal communicative power of this crucial scene was missing from the remainder of the presentation except for isolated moments.