Theater from another country — Korea, in the case of the new dance/martial arts show “Break Out” — does one of two things: Either it finds approximate meanings in the local language and translates its story effectively, or it misses a critical mass of cultural cues and turns into a crazy-quilt of surreal images. “Break Out” does the latter, and that turns out to be a large point in its favor. Auds can watch “America’s Best Dance Crew” or a Mr. Bean movie at home — only “Break Out” has the full complement of dancing nurses and beatboxing Nazis a discriminating theatergoer demands.The plot goes something like this, perhaps: Five inmates escape from a prison camp with the help of a strange book that somehow ended up in a broken-down old car in the prisoners’ garage (as prisons go, this one looks pretty comfortable). When handled, the book imparts strange powers to its reader, most frequently the power to boogie on down, but occasionally the power to spin on your head or make drum sounds into a handheld microphone. Believe it or not, the accidental dancing is loads of fun to watch. The performers, especially Young-Nam Song, look deeply surprised by the misbehavior of their arms and legs, and it takes a while for the joke to get old. When it does, the fighting begins, and Song and his confreres go flying across the stage in a bid to escape. They brawl for a while, but really, all our heroes have to do to win a fight is toss the book at a nearby stormtrooper, and “pow!” Instant dance party! Tae-Young Kim’s set design for the show incorporates the book itself, making each scene a sort of pop-up as stagehands and actors turn the giant pages from one stop in the getaway to the next. Unsurprisingly, most pages include Ji-Hee Jang, Jin-Hee Kim and Yoon-Hui Choi (billed as Beauties #1, 2, and 3, respectively), who make trouble as nurses and soldiers until they’re booked into the act, always with costumes slightly altered. In fact, when the three turn up as nuns near the end of the 75-minute show, it’s hard not to immediately envision the Catholic League heating the tar and plucking the chickens. But not to worry — nun-related wackiness is limited to two hungry sisters and one stern Mother Superior whose job it is to defend the Eucharist bread. While it’s hard to know what the goals of “Break Out” were (besides entertainment, at which it succeeds admirably if sometimes accidentally), it’s probably safe to say the show’s creators are unaware of the power of some of the images they’re using. The initial video reel of Hitler, for example, doesn’t seem to belong in the show (are we dating the period to WWII, maybe?), and there’s an odd moment with a cross at the end. But that, ultimately, is what separates “Break Out” from other shows of its kind, even the same company’s “Jump” last year: It feels new, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The characters could be straight out of an anime TV series, and the dance moves could be straight out of a music video. But this is probably the first time all these influences have landed on stage at the same time. Think of the show in the haiku-like projections it uses to describe Song’s character, Joker: “He is clumsy But as good As gold.”
Union Square Theater; 499 seats; $59 top
A Show and Arts presentation in association with SevenSense of a musical performance piece in one act directed by Jun-Beom Juen.
Sets, Tae-Young Kim; costumes, Hee-Ju Kim; lighting, Yun-Young Koo; original music, Sang-Ku Kang, Uk-Hyun Lee; sound, Yo-Chan Kim; choreography, SevenSense; production director, Hyun-Seung Seo. Opened Sept. 23, 2008. Reviewed Sept. 19. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.
With: Dae-Hyeok Lim, Won-Jun Song, Jong-Wook Jeong, Chul-Hee Han, Young-Nam Song, Jae-Hong Park, Seong-Jun Park, Ji-Hee Jang, Jin-Hee Kim, Yoon-Hui Choi.