By James Bartholomew
Resolution No.1428-326 was the unassuming name given to the eviction notice that Joseph Stalin served to the growing Korean population in the Soviet Union on August 21, 1937. The result of fear that spies from the Japanese Empire had infiltrated Russia’s eastern territories, this racist new edict exiled Korean citizens of the USSR to Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. The 200,000 refugees were given five months to complete the diasporic migration to a country some two thousand miles away, which was itself recovering from a famine/genocide that killed 38% of its population.
An estimated 10,000 people died on the journey, but those who made it found themselves in a strange crisis of identity. They weren’t quite Korean or Russian, not really Kazakh, and certainly not Japanese. Anatoliy Ogay was one of the many people to find himself in this curious fate, and his story is chronicled in “OTOSOTR (On the Other Side of the River),” a multimedia powerhouse written and performed by his grandson of the same name.
Having recorded an interview with his grandfather about his experiences fighting for the Red Army in World War II, the younger Mr. Ogay tries to construct a vessel for his eponymous ancestor’s memories, and to contextualize them for a modern audience. In a performance set both in the present day and during the war, Mr. Ogay reenacts the personal horrors his grandfather faced and reimagines the people he encountered on his campaign from Siberia to Berlin.
That metanarrative proves an effective framing device, which gives Mr. Ogay the opportunity to ground his grandfather’s story in more overtly modern terms. Mr. Ogay wonders out loud how his grandfather’s military academy would have reacted to a fussy French waiter taking their orders. Later in the play, he takes out a selfie stick and speculates how vloggers and streamers would have fared on the Eastern Front.
While that may sound questionable, clever writing and a commanding performance help moments like these feel natural and relevant. “OTOSOTR” has many witty turns of phrase and wrinkles of comedic irony that keep the work buoyant despite the weightiness of its themes. The piece explores nationality, multiculturalism, war, the artificiality of historical records and the nature of humanity, but thankfully, it never feels pretentious or preachy. Thanks are owed to the catchy piano pop ballads beautifully performed by Mr. Ogay, which keep everything moving at a nice clip.
The play has almost too much to say. The myriad thematic interests “OTOSOTR” sets out to tackle are so numerous and disparate that not everything feels like it has adequate breathing room. Mr. Ogay covers significant ground while keeping the story anchored on his grandfather, whose struggle and perseverance humanize the piece.
Mr. Ogay’s performance is instantly captivating, accentuated by some truly inspired lighting design used to brilliant effect. Behind Mr. Ogay hang seven florescent tubing lights, each operating independently and able to change color at will. Four of those tubes form a simple square, while the remaining three form a crooked diagonal line through the center. An eighth tube is placed over Mr. Ogay’s keyboard, for him to grab and twirl as he sees fit. The lights add dimension and mood to the piece, punctuating already tense scenes, and easing transitions into and out of the play’s distinct timelines. The versatility of the setup is a spectacle in its own right, and adds wonders to the production as a whole.
World War II stories are hardly in short supply. “OTOSOTR” beautifully makes the case for why those stories need to be preserved and retold to newer generations. Because tales of the heroics of D‑Day or the harrowing fall of Berlin are somewhat commonplace in contemporary culture, it takes something truly special for a war story to stand out among the rest of the platoon.
“OTOSOTR” proves more than up to that task. A distinguished sensation of the genre, the play is an absolute triumph. Clever writing and charming songwriting lend support to an already compelling premise, and Mr. Ogay’s convincing and poignant portrayals of his grandfather’s perilous journey provide a sturdy bedrock for the show’s deeper contemplations. In this history lesson and memoir, Mr. Ogay and director Tatyana Kim have crafted an excellent piece that demands attention.
“OTOSOTR (On the Other Side of the River)”
Written and Performed by Anatoliy Ogay
Oct. 27 at 4pm
Director & Producer: Tatyana Kim
Co-Producer: Galina Kiryan
Photos: #1 by Tatyana Kim, #2 by Marina_Kostantinova, both courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.