One Performance, Three Stories at Independent Shakespeare Company

Leigh Kennicott Reviews - Theater

Kalean Ung has unique stories to tell: three of them to be exact. Of Cambodian and Jewish extraction, Ung grew up immersed in one world, but curious about her father’s origins. The result is a compendium of story telling, music, and recitation.  With the help of Director Marina McClure, Ung has shaped her performance as a memoir in 13 chapters, interweaving the discovery of her Cambodian heritage, her father’s migration and ascent in the world of symphonic music, and the horrific effects of the Khmer Rouge on his extended family in Cambodia.


The title Letters From Home refers to anguished letters sent to Ung’s father, Chinary, by family members pleading for help.  These messages were kept away from his state-side family until Kalean begged to know more about the people he’d left behind.  The enormity of the country’s tragedy and his family’s losses casts a long shadow over Chinary Ung’s considerable success as well as Kalean’s narrative.


By way of demonstrating his unique compositions, Kalean employs them as subtext throughout her performance.  But, only when she plays and sings the lullaby she begged her father to create we learn the extent of Kalean’s connection to her father. Kalean’s operatic voice is rich and true, and when accompanied by a traditional Cambodian instrument, we can understand the depth of talent in this musical family.

Working with the Independent Shakespeare Company, Kalean has added Shakespeare to her repertoire.  Here, she includes relevant monologues from some of Shakespeare’s most iconic heroines almost as punctuation to her stories.

As if this cornucopia of influences were not enough, the variety of expression displayed by the setting made up of screens (by Mark Kanieff) that simultaneously serves as a video surface for the projection design (Hsua-Kuang Hsieh) rises above most one-person shows. Eclectic lighting (Jason Mann) augments the artistic accomplishments on display. With the exception of a Cambodian dress worn fleetingly in one segment, most of the costuming (Beryl Brachman) is Western.

Without the added impact of a family member’s horrific experience of torture and neglect at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, Kalean’s tale would be a pleasant narrative about the craggy road to self-realization in America, and an instructive one at that.  But the atrocities in south-east Asia promulgated by the Khmer Rouge then, coupled with the expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar now, weights the story in a way that demands discussion.  And here the show falls short.  Kalean cannot grapple with such inhumanity.  It deserves, in a sense, it’s own show.

Letters from Home performs Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 3;00 pm through November 18th at The Independent Studio, 3191 Casitas Ave., Suite 130, at the Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets range from $35-25.  Call (818) 508-1754 or at www.