The powerful rhythms began from the moment the show started. Slow drumming mixed with high-pitched chimes, then other beats filled in the silences and the tempo quickened. The samulnori set the stage for a continuous rhythm and energy that would carry out through “Cookin’,” or “Nanta” in the original Korean.
“Cookin’” is a non-verbal play that came to life with the traditional Korean samulnori, a rhythmic percussive music, with four people playing four different instruments. The show opened at the Children’s Theatre last week and runs through Oct. 22. Artistic director and producer Seung-Whan Song said that the sounds of the samulnori rhythms reminded him of the clangs and bangs in the kitchen.
The kitchen is the setting for the show, and the cooking utensils are the instruments. The rhythms are present throughout the show as the actors cook real food including bulgogi, BBQ meat, which Song said that they use for the smell. The show is interactive, and audience members are encouraged to clap in rhythm and even taste the ever-changing soup flavors. Props occasionally fly into the audience and you might be asked to participate in the “dumpling challenge.”
Song planned for the show to go worldwide from the beginning. “Nanta” premiered in South Korea in 1997, making it the longest-running show in the country. There are a few words, for example the ingredients painted on the props, that translate to the language of the host country they are performing in. The show’s production supervisor Kate Park sat in on my interview with Song and translated.
The show made its international debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1999, and since then it has toured through 60 countries and over 300 cities throughout the world, including Broadway in New York City. There are three theaters in South Korea that only show “Nanta,” and the show is regularly listed as a top attraction in Seoul.
“He thought about making a performance that could go worldwide. So to do that it has to have no barriers, including languages. Not just the languages, but no generational gaps. It can be for children or parents in their 70s, that was how it started,” Park said.
The pandemic put a three-year halt on the show. The Seoul theaters showing “Nanta” closed down, and the only performances of the show were virtual. Song called the Minneapolis tour a resurrection of the show after the shut-down of the pandemic.
The show relies on physical comedy and exaggerated facial expressions to tell the story, which follows chefs working (and playing) in a kitchen.
One of the few words spoken in the show is “six o’clock,” the time by which the characters have to finish cooking. The plot revolves around this deadline as characters make music in the kitchen and perform impressive stunts like plate-throwing and making an onion absolutely explode into hundreds of tiny pieces.
There are five characters in the show, and most of the actors have been with the production for a decade. The actors are trained in acting, not cooking or percussion, so they spent three months training for the physically demanding and complicated show.
When asked what the characters in the show are cooking, Song laughed and replied, in English, “Korean food.”
“So it’s not just how you cook, but how you play with those instrument utensils and with each other,” Song said, via Park’s translation
An actor himself, Song was inspired to involve the audience after performing the show “Offending the Audience,” a play designed to elicit heckling from the crowd. The show’s director compared the show to a soccer game in that the viewers’ hearts are beating alongside the players’. The show is designed to feel like the audience is working together with the actors and being involved in the production.
The audience participation started before the lights even dimmed– a chorus of kids in the audience read aloud the show’s preamble that flashed on the curtain as people found their seats.
Song’s favorite part of the show is the finale, when the drumming is so intense you can feel it in your body. The samulnori rhythm on display is unique in that it alternates between a slow beat that’s not following a specific rhythm, then “the fastest tempo you’ll ever hear in the world,” according to Song.
“Cookin’”runs Sept. 12 through Oct. 22 at the Children’s Theatre, and it’s a performance for all ages. Get tickets online and check out the Children’s Theatre’s audience guide for more kiddo-specific info, including sensory details.