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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Theatre review: Suitcase Stories is packed with joy

The personal is combined with the process in this immigrant's tale

Maki Yi is a delightful storyteller. In her solo show, Suitcase Stories, she combines a personal story of leaving her South Korean home, with details of the bureaucratic process of applying for Canadian citizenship.

Suitcase Stories was originally conceived by Yi as a series of ten minute plays performed before Pacific Theatre’s mainstage productions during its 2013/2014 season. With the help of dramaturg, D.D. Kugler, she has combined her eight short plays into this single narrative.

Arriving in Toronto, “fresh-off-the-airplane”, Yi dives head-first into what it means to be Canadian. Having learned much about the West from movies, there is a naivety to her expectations, as endearing as her upbeat and quirky personality. As she discovers not everything she has learned in those films accurately reflects reality, we are struck by just how poorly Hollywood has portrayed our cultural identity to the outside world. As a thread popping up through her script from time-to-time, that imaginary view into our world is an often funny device.

Another device is the ever-present suitcase from which Yi pulls tiny surprises to help tell her journey: a tiny replica Greyhound bus, long strands of coloured paper, and mounds of government documents. It also serves as Yi’s personal Greek chorus on wheels. While the voice Yi chose to give her suitcase sometimes comes across as infantile, it offers small insights into some of her internal thoughts.

Arriving almost penniless in her new home, Yi decides to make the move to Regina, where things are less expensive, and ignores the warnings that it is a frigid wasteland. With only enough money to take the trip by Greyhound, her travelogue is as expansive as the country she is traversing. At one point she admits just how tiny her existence is among the immensity of her new country. Arriving at her destination, Yi reinforces that notion of vastness with an amusing description of the size of the streets in Regina, with virtually no people on them.

It is in Regina that Yi finds her love for theatre, the catalyst that will eventually become the very show we are watching. Drawing a stage on the chalkboard floor and walls of the Pacific Theatre traverse stage, she proudly takes her place on her stage-within-a-stage. Under Colleen Lanki’s direction, this piece of meta-theatricality adds to Yi’s charm, and we can’t help but feel her joy in finally finding her place.

From here, Yi’s tale diverts from personal to process, as she begins to outline the absurdities of applying for Canadian immigration. While we can shake our collective heads at the ridiculous hoops that she must jump through, her journey does leave a trail of unanswered questions. Chief among them is why she has decided to leave South Korea in the first place.

It isn’t until very late in Suitcase Stories that we get an inkling of Yi’s real motivation for wanting to come to Canada. It is this part of Yi’s story that deserves more attention. Even as we find little difficulty in rooting for her as she overcomes Canadian bureaucracy, establishing that emotional connection earlier would have opened up an important layer to her story.

Yi is an effervescent storyteller, and her wide-eyed optimism is appealing. As she ends her story as she began, cheerfully waving at the audience as she makes her way up the aisle, we cannot help but rejoice with her in her newly adopted country.

Welcome home, Maki.

Suitcase Stories by Maki Yi. Directed by Colleen Lanki. A Pacific Theatre production on stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 12 Ave West, Vancouver) until November 12. Visit for tickets and information.

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