Miss Saigon had the helicopter. Phantom has the chandelier. And Endlings—a daring and audacious new play by Celine Song—has a water tank.
Partly set on a small, remote South Korean island, three elderly women are the last of their kind: the final three haenyeos, free divers that harvest seafood 65 feet deep without any equipment. They’ve been doing it their entire lives, and they’ve become pickled by the salt and the sun. They’ve got no one but each other, and few are as aware of the interminableness of life as these three.
Han Sol (Wai Ching Ho), Go Min (Emily Kuroda), and Sook Ja (Jo Yang) spend their days cursing their terrible lives, regularly wishing for death. They wouldn’t wish their lives on anyone. But Song effectively mixes comedy with just the right amounts of poignancy and fancy to make their stories delightful, captivating, and wholly original.
But Endlings also takes place in New York City where we find Ha Young, a young Korean-Canadian playwright writing the very play that we are watching. Young is played by Jiehae Park, who is herself a playwright (she wrote peerless, which Company One produced recently), which adds a fascinating layer to all of this.
While Young wonders about why she lives in an overpriced studio apartment with rodents, the three haenyeos wonder why they never moved away from their island while time was on their side. And while the young playwright struggles with how to find success in the white world of the theater without selling her soul and sacrificing her identity, our elderly divers go to sleep alone on the floor of their modest shacks with television as their only company.
It is in this way that Endlings is most successful, but it ultimately goes off the deep end—as many new adventurous works tend to do—and the metatheatrical nature of the play (particularly a too-heavy-handed second act) unravels Song’s more brilliant writing earlier in the play.
Directed by Sammi Cannold, Endlings brims with promise and originality. And even if Jason Sherwood’s must-see set design (the tank!) steals the show, it does so without feeling like a gimmick.
The story of the haenyeos could (and probably should) be its own play. But in thinking about how the play might be better without what I perceived to be the outlandish self-indulgence of the second act, I realized that my white, male opinion of a bold and exciting new work from a thrilling, nonwhite, nonmale playwright is very much not the point. Rather, Endlings is a beautiful theatrical exorcism of some of what has been on Celine Song’s mind: fear of being seen, fear of not belonging, and the courage to exist on her own terms.
ENDLINGS. THROUGH 3.17 AT AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG