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A Thousand Faces

14

Chapter 14

30

The day of the performance.

The theater world was already abuzz. Everyone was talking about Junho Gil’s surprising appearance on a small-town stage. All kinds of rumors swirled online. Some wondered why he was here, while others speculated on the reasons behind his unexpected visit.

-Did you hear? NK Entertainment sent him away for self-reflection due to bullying.

-Huh? Junho Gil? Could he be in trouble like that?

-Bullying? That explains the rumors. It’s hard to trust celebrities these days.

But not everyone saw the situation in a negative light.

-Even if the rumors are true, we can’t deny his talent. Now he’s gonna take over the theater world.

-If he acts well, who cares? I wanna see what he can do.

Half an hour before showtime, the internet was flooded with chatter that seemed to confirm Junho Gil’s star power.

***

The UNN Broadcasting Station newsroom, Seoul.

The Culture Department’s press room was a hive of activity. Reporters lined up in front of their screens, phones ringing incessantly. In the midst of this chaos, Yooyoung Shin, a journalist focused on theater, was already working on an article about a play that hadn’t even opened.

“Okay.”

Yooyoung nodded as she finalized the tagline of her article.

“Why has Junho Gil, the actor of actors, traded the glamor of film for the small stage? What prompted this leap?”

She wasn’t sufficiently motivated to go to the venue and watch the two-hour performance herself. After all, Junho Gil’s talents were a given; unless he dramatically flubbed his lines on stage, the angle of her article was pretty much set in stone.

Junho Gil’s performance moves audiences to tears, the expected narrative ran, packed with glowing reviews and predictable acclaim.

Yawning, Yooyoung skimmed through the clichéd draft of her article, basing her conclusions on the press kit from NK Entertainment. She was on track to finish it by the time the play was set to finish.

If everything went according to plan, today would be just another day. Yooyoung intended to have a beer at a nearby pub after work because the weather was so nice and breezy.

However, two hours later, her plan was abruptly derailed.

“Hey, Yooyoung. Did you see the buzz about the play?”

“Junho Gil’s?”

“Yeah…”

“I’m finalizing my piece on it now. I’m just about to submit it to the editor.”

“You might want to hold off on that.”

Her colleague handed her his phone. Curious, Yooyoung scrolled through “The Theater Warehouse,” a popular forum for theater enthusiasts. Initially, all chatter revolved around Junho Gil, but a new name quickly dominated the conversation.

-Just saw Junho Han on the cast list.

-Heard he’s only 17. Can you believe it?

-Wait, he’s underage? What agency is he with?

Soon, Junho Gil was yesterday’s news, replaced entirely by this newcomer, Junwoo.

Yooyoung looked confused. “Junwoo Han? Who is he? Is he an actor from NK?”

“I’m not sure about that either. Did you check your email? The organizers of the play sent some revised materials.”

Feeling anxious, Yooyoung checked her inbox, only to find herself freezing. Her head spun as her article’s relevance crumbled before her eyes.

Her colleague patted her shoulder encouragingly. “I guess you’ll have to rewrite the piece from scratch.”

“No… This can’t be happening.”

I have to start over because of some unknown actor?!

Amid the noisy press room, Yooyoung gave a silent scream.

***

The whole story went like this.

A few hours ago, a striking banner emblazoned with “The Pursuer of the Frontier” greeted everyone at the theater’s entrance. Its title, spelled out in an ominous dark font against a black background, drew eyes and cameras alike.

The auditorium was a hub of excitement, while outside, fans gathered in hopes of catching a glimpse of Junho Gil making his exit.

The air inside buzzed with the sound of chatty spectators, the name “Junho Gil” floating above the din. Mansik peered out of the dressing room door.

No denying he’s a star.

It wasn’t until he saw the crowd’s fervor with his own eyes that he grasped the magnitude of Junho Gil’s fame—despite having followed the actor closely during rehearsals.

“The set is really well done for a small theater, isn’t it?” an audience member’s compliment floated over.

“I know, right? I’ve never seen anything like it. Sets are usually pretty basic.”

“I felt like I was walking into a real abandoned mine when I came in just now. How’d they get the lighting so eerie?”

Mansik smiled to himself and quietly closed the door.

Inside, the dressing room was alive with the last-minute flurry of preparations. Unlike his fellow actors, who were buried in their scripts, Junwoo sat apart, his makeup done, staring into the mirror.

Mansik approached him. “Hey kid— I mean…” He stopped himself and corrected with a slight cough, “Junwoo.”

Junwoo looked up.

“Ready? It’s almost time.”

It was ten minutes before the show.

***

The Pursuer of the Frontier.

Anton, a detective whose life was shattered by a criminal who not only murdered his family but also left him a cripple, relentlessly chased Pavel, the man he believed responsible.

The play was a gripping thriller that delved into the characters’ psyches. Junho Gil, embodying the detective’s fury and obsession for justice, and Junwoo, portraying the accused on the run, delivered performances that kept the audience at the edge of their seats.

“The essence of the drama lies in the complex psychology of its characters, whose true motives remain enshrouded in ambiguity,” the program noted.

As the curtain lifted, a hush fell over the crowd, the somber tones of the background music setting the scene. Junho Gil, leaning on a cane, made his way onto the stage.

A gunshot sound effect echoed.

“So, this is where the guy lives.”

The anticipation in the air was palpable, charged by Junho Gil’s mere presence and the nuanced delivery of his lines.

The audience watched, utterly captivated. Despite the no-photo policy, some couldn’t resist the urge to sneak a shot.

Junho Gil’s monologue, revealing the depth of his character’s pain, was nothing short of mesmerizing. His ability to fill the stage with his presence was a testament to his talent.

Unbeknownst to the audience and Junho himself, this remarkable focus was made possible by Junwoo’s diligent behind-the-scenes work. Every stage movement, every prop, had been meticulously prepared by Junwoo, allowing Junho to immerse fully in his role.

The intensity of Junho’s performance grew, each moment more compelling than the last.

From the wings, Mansik watched, awe-struck. “I didn’t know he was this good.”

Mansik was no stranger to talent, having observed his fair share of seasoned performers through the years. But Junho Gil, he realized, stood out even among the best. The stage radiated an energy beyond what anyone had seen during rehearsals.

Yet, Mansik’s gaze was drawn not to the spotlight but to the shadows at the stage’s edge.

As Junho Gil’s monologue reached its climax, the audience, captivated by his performance, thought they had seen the evening’s highlight. Mansik, heart racing with anticipation, knew better. The real twist was yet to unfold.

Then, breaking the silence, footsteps echoed across the stage.

Junwoo emerged, his presence far from ordinary, stepping into the limelight as Junho’s voice faded into the background. Despite the audience’s initial fixation on the star they had come to see, their attention shifted the moment Junwoo spoke.

“You made me a monster,” Junho’s voice resonated from the dark.

“You guys are no different,” Junwoo retorted. “Do you really think that’s okay?”

The crowd was taken aback, their attention snapping to the young actor.

“Huh?”

“Who’s that?”

Playing a character who delighted in bizarre murders for years posed quite a challenge for Junwoo, who was only seventeen. It was inevitable that there would be a hint of youth in his voice. However, from the moment his lines began, no one in the theater saw Junwoo as a teenager.

The audience was completely captivated. They held their breath, not daring to take their eyes off him.

The climax erupted with an intensity that electrified the air. Junho Gil and Junwoo, positioned at opposite ends of the stage, unleashed a torrent of emotion. Junho, with his commanding voice, filled the theater with his undeniable presence. Yet, when Junwoo retorted, the atmosphere shifted dramatically.

“No… It’s not me! How many times do I have to say it before you’ll believe me?!”

Junwoo’s smirk made him seem almost gleeful in his deceit, and his trembling body as he proclaimed his innocence painted the picture of a man on the brink.

The kid truly did look like a deranged murderer.

“Whoa…”

Someone in the audience involuntarily gasped and covered their mouth.

Backstage, Mansik was trembling. He no longer had any doubts. Every time Junwoo acted, he felt a chill run down his spine.

The young actor’s presence was undeniable.

In that moment, comparisons ceased to matter. Junho’s fiery performance, though passionate, was overshadowed by the newcomer’s brilliance. The audience, the crew, the NK Entertainment executives, and even Junho’s manager found themselves ensnared by Junwoo’s performance.

People usually go to the theater to see their favorite actors, no matter how good the play is. They just want a glimpse of their idol, regardless of their acting skills. This particular audience, with at least half staunchly in Junho Gil’s camp, found themselves in an unexpected predicament as they shifted loyalties.

It was unbelievable. Could a rookie like him really sway an entire audience?

The moment the curtain came down, the theater erupted into a standing ovation.

“Who was that?”

“I don’t know. But wow, he’s crazy good.”

“What an act!”

As the crowd buzzed with questions about the incredible rookie who had appeared out of nowhere, the name “Junwoo” began to circulate throughout the auditorium.

Looking down at the standing audience, Junho Gil took a deep breath. Until now, he had been the object of universal admiration and awe. Yet, in this moment, his pride as an actor was tinged with embarrassment.

The direction of the audience’s gaze was unmistakable. On stage, Junwoo, merely seventeen, held the spotlight with an effortless grace. Junho Gil couldn’t begin to fathom the heights Junwoo might reach after tonight.

It took a mere thirty minutes for Junwoo Han’s name to flood the internet.

***

“The Emergence of a Monster Rookie Actor! A New Legend in the Theater Scene that Rivals even Junho Gil.”

The headline was the first of many about Junwoo as rumors began to spread. A few pieces were even written about Mansik’s theater.

“The rural theater, revived after 5 years, makes a new leap.”

“A theater’s renaissance—who is the key figure behind this revolution?”

While these stories didn’t make national news, they set the theater world alight. The audience was unanimous about one thing: Junho Gil’s commendable talent was outshone by Junwoo Han’s remarkable debut.

“That’s why…”

There had never been a case where a newcomer overshadowed a seasoned actor like Junho Gil. It was unlikely to happen again.

But those in Junho Gil’s fan circles who hadn’t seen the play just couldn’t accept it.

-Just because he’s young and attractive, everyone’s falling over themselves lol. It just doesn’t make sense.

-This has to be a setup. They’re all in on it.

-You fools, you’ve all been tricked. Junho Gil purposely toned down his act to let the newbie shine.

***

A barbecue restaurant in the city.

“Hey, what are you doing? Flip it over quickly.”

The whole restaurant was alive with noise. The theater crew, a blend of actors, stagehands, and staff, had come together in the group seating area for an after-party to celebrate the success of their recent performance.

Junho Gil, who had ditched his prior engagements to be there, sat next to his manager, whose frustration was apparent.

“It’s not polite to skip a once-in-a-lifetime wrap party,” Junho said.

“Is it polite to cancel your shoot the day of?” his manager shot back.

“It’s not a big deal. Just reschedule my part.”

Junho, ever the professional, picked up a piece of meat without dropping his dignified expression.

Across the table, Mansik raised his glass. “Thanks for your hard work, everyone.”

One by one, the others followed suit.

At the end of Mansik’s toast, someone asked, “Doesn’t the meat taste good?”

Junwoo, with an expression that didn’t hide his displeasure, stared blankly at the glass of Coke in front of him.

Then, Mansik’s phone rang in his pocket. He didn’t need to check the caller ID to know who it was.

“These guys again. But seriously? At this time of night?”

Mansik took out his phone and stepped outside.

Since the end of the performance, Mansik had been bombarded with phone calls. Each mechanically repeated the same words.

“Okay, I understand. I’ll review it and get back to you.”

Calls poured in from various entertainment agencies, new talent agencies, and advertisers, all trying to capitalize on Junwoo’s sudden fame. It was astounding how people who hadn’t even seen the play waved all kinds of offers at him, all based solely on articles or reviews.

“What? A K-pop idol? You can tell he’s a dancer just by his face?” Mansik yelled into his phone, followed by a hollow laugh.

None of them could answer Mansik’s questions about Junwoo’s actual performance. There was no point in arguing with those who had come solely for the kid’s celebrity status.

At that moment, there was a voice behind him.

“Are you Mr. Mansik Joo?”

Mansik turned and gave the stranger a quizzical expression.

“I had no idea I would arrive this late. I’m sorry,” said the man. “I heard there was an after-party here.”

Disheveled and breathless, the man’s once-neat suit looked crumpled and untucked. It was clear he had been on a long journey.

“Who are you?” Mansik asked.

“Oh, right. I’m Sangjun Yoo from the production team at W Broadcasting. I have an irresistible offer for you.”

The man looked around the restaurant as if he was looking for someone, even as he spoke to Mansik.

Mansik frowned deeply. This was too much.

“You came with an offer at this time of night? What’s so important that you had to do it now?”

“Please, just listen. We’re developing a new show, unlike anything you’ve seen before.”

Sangjun smiled, his confidence undimmed despite his disrespectful intrusion.

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