Wakka Wakka’s inventive musical explores the troubling origins of everyday consumer items.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Mary and Eddie are neighbors who, despite their mutual disdain for one another, are more alike than they believe. Both are divorced, with grown children who seem completely uninterested in spending time with them and poorly behaved dogs who are often their only companion. But when Mary goes shopping and finds a letter inside a box of Christmas decorations from a Chinese laborer being held against their will, the pair are dragged into a fantastical adventure across China as they discover everything they wished they could forget about anything "made in China."
And they're all puppets. And it's a musical.
Made in China is a whirlwind musical adventure created and performed by visual theater company Wakka Wakka, a coproduction with Nordland Visual Theatre and with music by MiNensemblet. This wild performance takes us from suburban America to mystic mountaintops, picture-perfect urban China and the labor camps that make it possible, an expansive world created by only seven puppeteers and six musicians. The puppets themselves are crafted with exquisite detail, from the massive dragon to the smallest details on Mary's naked body, and manipulated with such expertise that watching a puppet stand in one place and "sing" an entire number is completely engrossing.
In a typical live performance, there is a gap between the everyday people and actions depicted onstage and any fantastical elements that have been created artificially. But the genius of Made in China is that with puppetry, everything is the same degree of artificial, which means that everything you see on that stage is equally real. Alternating the mundane details of using the bathroom or paying for noodles with fantastical scenarios of household objects coming to life or Mary becoming an airplane lands us in a world where anything is possible, and dreams are just as substantial as reality.
In fact, there is only one human face we ever see during the performance: that of the letter writer whose hidden message launches Mary and Eddie's journey. Those sudden appearances flip the script and let us see events, however briefly, from the other point of view. Instead of Mary's wondering if the letter is real, the letter writer must wonder if anything they imagine America to be is real either.
Mary and Eddie's feelings of being left behind and forgotten by their children link them thematically to the Chinese laborers America has conveniently forgotten about as well. American complicity in this Chinese industrial complex is touched on in a few moments in the play—the delightful scene in which Mary's household objects come alive and sing to her, and the duet between Mao Zedong and Uncle Sam about the value of work—but could certainly have been highlighted more. By the conclusion of their whole fantastical episode, Mary and Eddie are ready to share the news about the letter with the world, but have hardly rethought their own role in the economic system that employs forced labor.
Other highlights from the performance include a spectacularly creepy puppet of the ghost of Eddie's brother, embodying Eddie's conflicted feelings about having fled his country, and a giant panda that sings along with a remix of Donald Trump saying "China." All together, Made in China is an impressive creation, an entertaining glimpse into the everyday and the fantastical all in one musical journey. Whether the questions it raises about our relationship with China become more relevant with time, we will have to wait and see.
Made in China plays at 59E59 Theaters through February 19.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.