So much that surrounds us these days, like the title of this new show, is Made in China. What we buy, what we eat, what we decorate with, what we feed our pets; it is mostly imported from China. This inventive new musical, being expertly staged at 59E59 Theatre by the Obie- and Drama Desk-winning Wakka Wakka, wants to explore our day to day unconscious connection with a country we know so little about. And what better way, as they say in the press package, but to explore this dynamic with puppetry and song. Naturally.
Fascinating to watch, Made in China, written by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage (with help from the Made in China ensemble), is an inventive tale of discovery and awakening. It delves into the world of Mary, a middle-aged divorced mother, living alone, ignored by her children, and living with only the love of her dog. Sitting naked on her couch eating noodles (yes, there is full frontal puppet nudity and x-rated language, and a lot of it), she (a magnificent Peter Russo) sings a smart witty song, “Not Today” that is a perfect and very honest introduction to Mary, an average stereotypical American, but also to what kind of musical this show is. Bright and smart, filled with humor and depth (music and lyrics by Yan Li), we aren’t sure where it is going, but we sit back and trust that it will be a fun wild ride into a thoughtful engaging world. Mary is a self-described ‘consumer whore’ and ‘glutton’ soothing herself with over-indulgent shopping sprees and nights at home, frustrated and lonely, watching TV.
She spies on her next-door neighbor suspiciously (or is it something else?) usually yelling at him. Eddie Wang (an engaging and nuanced Ariel Estrada) is an ex-pat Chinese man with complicated ties to his homeland, also living by himself with only the company of his dog. Spurned on by a hand written plea for help found by Mary in a package of just purchased Christmas lights, she reaches out to her neighbor, only to be rejected. Soon after, a hilarious song and dance by some very vocal and aggressive household appliances, these two unlikely cohorts come together and find themselves sucked down into some abstract universe (creative work by Yu Ting Lin: set design; Alex Goldberg: lighting design; Tiger Cai: video animation), where they will have to join forces to survive.
It’s pretty inventive stuff, the journey this talented team of puppeteers (Lei-Lei Bavoil, Fang Du, Ariel Estrada, Dorothy James, Wei-Yi Lin, Andy Manjuck, Stephen J Mark, Charles Pang, Peter Russo, and Hansel Tan Shenwei) take us on. A tad simplistic at times, and could possibly use a bit of post election updating, the work overall is illuminating. With numerous catchy and surprisingly humorous songs, a singing plunger, a hungry toilet, a firefly spirit, and a predatory dragon, the two neighbors come face to face with some frightening and disturbing discovers about China, its labor policies, and their global corporate practices. They also learn a few things about themselves and each other along the way: cue the puppet porn music, please (if you get my drift). Directed by Ms. Warnock and Mr. Waage, the odyssey into activism and awareness is surreal and engaging. It’s a fantastical parallel dimension; part Muppets and Avenue Q, part middle-aged love story, part human rights documentary. All together, they create an adult-aimed puppet show that is captivating and full of surprise and laughs. It’s more than just “70% good”.
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