A rare adult puppet show exploring human emotions with grace and humor.
Editor’s Note: Theater Pizzazz has the rare privilege of offering separate reviews of Made in China by two of our esteemed critics. The following is Joel Benjamin’s review. After enjoying this one, we invite you to read Samuel L. Leiter’s review here.
by Joel Benjamin
I hope that the intriguingly named theater company, Wakka Wakka’s delightful Made in China will find the audience this delightful fantasy deserves. Smartly written and directed by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, Made in China, currently at the 59E59 Theaters, is a magical adult puppet show—emphasis on adult—simultaneously hilarious and touching. Two beautifully wrought adult puppets go on a surreal journey in which they are forced to help each other, only to discover that the ensuing personal and political epiphanies have changed them forever, bringing them closer—literally and figuratively.
Made in China opens on an unabashedly nude, Mary, grumpy, lumpy and middle aged. She is off-handedly mean to her sweet dog, Lily. She takes a long, explicit look at herself in bathroom mirror singing “This is Me,” an exhaustively honest take on her deteriorating body before offhandedly using the toilet. As I said, this is an adult show.
Her next door neighbor, Eddie, also middle-aged and also lonely, is a Chinese expatriate who spends his days tending lovingly to his dog, Yo-Yo and fending off the rude comments that Mary shoots his way. Both have issues with their offspring, each reacting differently: Mary goes shopping (a beautifully staged bit which includes another sly song, “Gotta Get Out”) and Eddie goes into himself which leads to his sad rumination, “Watching Me.”
Mary irritatingly keeps mistaking Eddie for Japanese and mispronouncing his name, even though he patiently corrects her. Inevitably a dog walking incident brings them uneasily together. What binds them subsequently is a surprise journey to China motivated by a despairing note from an imprisoned Chinese worker that Mary finds in one of the items she bought on her shopping excursion. (The only totally human actor in the play puts a human face on this heartbreaking entreaty.)
How the two get to China is a coup de théâtre that is so bizarrely funny that to give it away wouldn’t be fair! When there they find courage they didn’t know they possessed; meet the evil Dick Mills and his companion in corruption, Madam Millions; are pestered by the mischievous Wei-Wei (who gets a song that tosses his name about); get into trouble with the authorities leading to imprisonment; and witness historic events. Returning the way they came—my lips are sealed!—they find comfort in each other’s’ arms and sing “All I Need to Change the World is You.”
The puppetry is technically astounding in its smoothness and expressiveness. Furniture seems to float on and rotate in space, while the skilled puppeteers transform the two leading characters and their dogs into warmly expressive beings with believable voices to match. The Bunraku-like puppeteers, all dressed in camouflage black, work with precision and speed, even giving witty life to bathroom plungers, vegetables, mountains, cellphones and other supposedly inanimate objects.
The Made in China Ensemble included: Peter Russo (as Mary); Andy Manjuck (Yo-Yo, Dick Mills, etc.); Dorothy James (Lilly, Spinning Dildo—!!—and others); Charles Pang (the letter writer, the Plunger, etc.); Stephen J. Mark (Wei-Wei, etc.); Ariel Estrada and Hansel Tan Shenwei (Eddie); and Lei Lei Bavoil (Mary’s Feet, Miss Millions, etc.).
The pleasant songs were written by Yan Li who also led the MINensemblet performing ensemble on Keyboard, joined by five other spritely musicians, adding dimension to his songs.
The lighting by Alex Goldberg, the sound design by Tyler Kieffer, the set design by Yu-Ting Lin, Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, costume design by Ms. Warnock and Mr. Waage as well as the video art of Tiger Cai are all woven together into a complete and joyous work of art.
Made in China. Through February 19 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues). Running time: one hour 20 minutes, no intermission. www.59e59.org
Photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp