Two can play

2013-08-29 : 17:38
A scene from “Story of My Life”

Thrill of minimalist theater 

Two-handed plays and musicals are enjoying growing popularity in an otherwise subdued theater market.
The explanation is both artistic and economic.

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Two is enough.

Thespians are probably murmuring this as they witness an unprecedented ascent of two-actor plays and musicals in the past years.

These are hardly great times for theater, except for the most lavish of musicals that continue to hog the wealth of talent and money. The prolonged economic slump is another factor as movies, the highest form of escapist entertainment for their cheapness and ubiquity, cement their status as the dominant source for drama.

It has been a struggle for plays to sell enough tickets to pay the continuously high rents in the theater streets of Daehangno and Hongdae, let alone paying the actors and crew on time. Interestingly, the plays that are consistently drawing an audience are the ones that limit the main characters to a duo.

“Thrill Me,” an Off-Broadway piece written and composed by Stephen Dolginoff, has been a smash hit in Korea since arriving in 2007. Based on the story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two young men who murdered a boy in 1924, the two-hander musical explores dark subjects like kidnapping and murder. 

Lee Dong-ha, left, plays Richard Loeb opposite Shin Sung-min, Nathan Leopold, in the current production of “Thrill Me” at The Stage Theater in Sinchon, Seoul.  / Courtesy of Musical Heaven

The musical is currently in its seventh run in Korea at The Stage Theater, starring Jung Sang-yoon, Oh Jong-hyuk and four other aspiring actors, and continuing through Sept. 29.

The narrative of “Thrill Me” relies on the tension created between Leopold and Loeb, a gay couple whose relationship is bound by a contract that requires Loeb to satisfy Leopold’s need in exchange for his help as an accomplice in crimes.

The conflict between them grows as the show progresses and Dolginoff’s music effectively builds up the emotions and tensions. Jung and Oh are solid in their performances, although it would be difficult to look bad when the material is as good as this.

The huge success of “Thrill Me” inspired other theater companies to explore two-handers. “Trace U,” a Korean musical that was staged from Artone Theater in Daehangno from February to April, enjoyed a decent success. The musical was about a rock vocalist and a club owner and their tricky relationship with a mysterious woman, who is only mentioned during the show. The plot wasn’t exactly a Shakespearean work, but the lively music alone proved to be a good sell.


“The musical provided audiences with a jolt of live rock music with its four member band which backed the two actors. It also had a twist at the end that kept the audience interested until the last minute,” said Kim Yun-kyung, an official from “Trace U”’s promotion company.

“Gutenberg! The Musical!” which opens at Chungmu Art Hall on Saturday, is the latest two-hander to arrive on the scene.

The show revolves around two musical writers Bud and Doug and their journey to put their piece about Johannes Gutenberg on Broadway. Two actors playing Bud and Doug alternate in more than 20 different characters in the musical, switching their caps to show what role they are playing.

Romantic comedies like Jasaon Robert Brown’s “The Last Five years” and the Korean work “Caffeine” are the other two-hander lays that enjoyed success.

Most of the two-handed plays and musicals are staged at small theaters with minimal sets and musical instruments, making them less vulnerable to financial problems.

“Trace U” 

“Thrill Me” and “Gutenberg! The Musical!” are performed entirely with a piano, while "The Story of My Life,” a musical composed by Neil Bartram and written by Brian Hill, uses a piano, a cello and a clarinet. The music is usually preformed very close to the acting, compared to traditional plays where the band is off the stage and obscured, allowing for a sense of interaction. The piano on stage in “Thrill Me” certainly does feel like the third actor.

Two-handers have proved as addictive to some theatergoers, who seem to experience stronger interaction with the actors as well. According to Musical Heaven, a market researcher, more than 110 people have seen “Thrill Me” more than 10 times since the seventh run started three months ago. Park, a theatergoer in her late 20s, says she probably saw “Thrill Me” me more than 50 time since 2009.

“This year’s ‘Thrill Me,’ helmed by Japanese director Tamiya Kuriyama, concentrates more on the nature of people. The direction is simple and there is a void to be filled by imagination,” Park said.

Though the script and direction is the same, every performance is different, however slightly, Park said. For “Thrill Me,” Leopold leaves his glasses at the crime scene and it leads to the arrest of him and Loeb, but the script does not clarify whether he did it on purpose or by mistake.

“Last Five Years” 

“For instance, Leopold would touch his glasses before signing the contract with Loeb one day, which hints that he came up with the plan in advance. But sometimes it seems like him dropping his glasses was just a mistake. The interpretation can be different every day,” she said.

She also watched other actors playing “Thrill Me” out of curiosity. “Each actor portrays different sentiment of Leopold and Loeb and it could be a big difference in two-man plays,” Park added.

The phenomenon is not limited to Korea. Won Jong-won, a musical critic and media professor at Soonchunhyang University, said Korean theatergoers now look for fresh musicals with provocative material and well-composed music.

“Broadway and the West End went through similar changes in the 1990s and Korea is going through a similar trend. The popularity of a two-hander is spreading from theater buffs to the general public,” he said.