Its title and the location almost perfectly complement each other. But the plot? Not so much.
“Prince Puzzle,” a musical which is being held at Gyeonghuigung ― one of the five grand palaces in Seoul built by the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) ― delivers a heart-wrenching story of young star-crossed lovers in the Joseon era, surrounded by the site’s beautiful historical buildings and crisp autumn breeze. Real fireflies that lit the night sky added to the atmosphere.
Yet the poignant love story is rather ineptly woven into the tense case of the missing royal prince ― who does not appear once throughout the show.
Written and produced by theater company Jukdorok Dalinda, the show was first premiered last year as a small scale musical. The royal palace is certainly a more convincing location than any theater venue would be, as the show begins with the disappearance of Joseon’s 7-year-old crown prince.
The case gets Gu-dong, a young court eunuch who guards the residence of the missing prince, into trouble. On the night the prince went missing, Gu-dong left the property unattended to meet up with his long-time love Ja-suk, who serves as a handmaid to the queen in the same palace.
As both Ja-suk and Gu-dong are being investigated by their superiors, it is unexpectedly revealed that Ja-suk is pregnant with the king’s baby. The jealous queen, who has been drinking almost every night, suffering from her husband’s long-time neglect, suddenly becomes harsh and cold-hearted toward her young maiden.
Not wanting to believe the king is in love with her close servant, the queen begins to suspect Ja-suk’s baby is in fact Gu-dong’s, not her husband’s. The selfish and irresponsible king at first tries to protect Ja-suk from the queen’s irrational accusations, but everything changes as he becomes aware Ja-suk and Gu-dong have known each other even before starting their lives as court servants.
Then the musical unfolds the hidden story of Gu-dong, who had made a shocking life decision only to live near the then soon-to-be court handmaiden Ja-suk, the love of his life. The love story of the young innocent souls, belonging to the lowest caste of Joseon, is beautifully symbolized with a piece of apricot ― the only gift that Gu-dong can afford to give Ja-suk ― that appears throughout the show.
Yet the case of the missing prince seems rather unconvincing, only working as a sloppy dramatic device to intensify the show’s tragic impact. Both the king and queen characters lack depth, being portrayed as rather simple and foolish human beings who are undignified and shameless when abusing their power.
Unlike the musicals that have been previously performed at the cultural heritage site, including “The Last Empress” and “The King’s Jester,” the wooden stage for “Prince Puzzle” is set in the court, instead of the main building of the palace, so the audience can look down from the position of a king while watching the show in the palace.
Through Sept. 21 at Gyeonghuigung in central Seoul. Not appropriate for children. Tickets range from 30,000 won to 50,000 won. For more information, call (02) 1577-3363.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)