Review: "The Legend of The Waitress & The Robber" Will Make You Forget About Checking Your Phone for 70 Minutes

The Legend of The Waitress & The Robber

Written by Renee Philippo

Music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn

Directed by Eric Nightengale and Renee Philippi

Presented by Concrete Temple Theatre, Playfactory Mabangzen, and Yellowbomb, in partnership with the Korean Cultural Center NY at Dixon Place

161A Chrystie Street, Manhattan, NYC

May 25-29, 2022

R to L: (standing) NamPyo Kim, (on table) James A. Pierce III, and Lisa Kitchens in The Legend of the Waitress & the Robber at Dixon Place. Photo by Stefan Hagen.
The Legend of The Waitress & The Robber, a transnational collaboration between theater artists based in Seoul and New York City, first began to take shape in 2018 and now makes its pandemic-delayed New York City premiere at Dixon Place - a venue which is, incidentally, celebrating its 35th year showcasing adventurous theater. The Legend of The Waitress & The Robber, performed in English and Korean, with supertitles in each when the other is spoken, offers a distinctive musical melding of folktale and dystopia. It imagines a city (called The City) in which a single company (called The Company) sets the terms of service for every facet of lives lived exclusively through smartphones and tablets. Will a folk hero–or heroes–arise to throw off this oppression?
L to R: Hye Young Chyun, Rolls Andre, Kyongsik Won, Lisa Kitchens, James A. Pierce III, Ju Yeon Choi, Eunji Lim, Carlo Adinolfi, and NamPyo Kim in The Legend of the Waitress & the Robber at Dixon Place. Photo by Stefan Hagen.
Following a stage-setting metatheatrical opening song by the ensemble, the scene shifts to a local food distribution center, in which we witness a bit of a fracas over promised soup and learn that under the Company's contract, which dictates everyone's behavior, only English is allowed, a nod perhaps to the cultural homogenization effected by neoliberal globalization and registered by the characters as part of the loss of the "old" ways of living. We also meet the titular Waitress (Ju Yeon Choi), who ends up taking home an older woman, Ok-ja (Eunji Lim), whom The Waitress observes being mistreated by Ok-ja's daughter (Yura Noh). In The Waitress's home, we get our first glimpse of her collection of banned books, which includes, among its Korean titles and canonical English literature, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984. Later, we are introduced to the equivalent of a folktale's ruling family: the founder of The Company (Rolls Andre); his nefarious First Son (James A. Pierce III), who runs The Company; and his kinder Second Son (Carlo Adinolfo), who works in repairs and, in a nice touch, often glides around the stage on a Razor Ripstik. Word of inheritance plans prompts the First Son to frame the Second using, appropriately, an out-of-context video clip, which brings the Second Son into contact with a group of dissidents (and, from necessity, food thieves) led by Captain Scamp (Lisa Kitchens). As events progress, The Waitress ends up collecting senior citizens, and the two storylines move entertainingly towards their climatic intersection.
L to R: Eunji Lim, Yura Noh, Nam Pyo Kim, Kyoungsik Won, Ju Yeon Choi in The Legend of the Waitress & the Robber at Dixon Place. Photo by Stefan Hagen.
Our collective screen addiction is a central target of The Legend of The Waitress & The Robber (and both South Korea and the U.S. are certainly extremely online nations). And while the message that disconnecting from our phones will manifestly improve our lives is a relatively simple one, the play does complicate it through Scamp's admonition that simply denying people access to their phones won't accomplish any kind of actual revolution. Befitting the heightened atmosphere of a "legend," the production's tone is overwhelmingly light and humorous despite its dystopian setting (think Upload more than Black Mirror). Cardboard props and actor-generated sound effects contribute delightfully to this atmosphere, and, aptly for the play's concerns, are about as analog as you can get. The airy, modernist set design (by Second Son Carlo Adinolfi) uses a motif of repeated shapes that evoke the outlines of smartphones (and, just possibly, the Korean consonant romanized as m). The performances are appealingly lively and colorful, and several cast members, including Choi, Chyun, Andre, and Pierce, have moments that individually spotlight their vocal talent. In addition to being a great time, The Legend of The Waitress & The Robber reminds us that live theater is one of the very few places left where we communally disconnect from our screens and pay attention to the people in front of us.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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