Made in China

Made in China opens with 56-year-old Mary Harrison sitting naked on her sofa with her dog Lily. Mary sings:
This is me
Talking to my dog
Sitting in a fog
Eating macaroni
But in my head, I’m far away.

We soon meet Mary’s neighbor, a Chinese ex-pat named Eddie Wang (we will learn that the name is pronounced Wong) and his dog Yo Yo. Eddie sings:
I really like this place
I’m glad that I have come here
Neighbors say “Hello”
Treat me like I’m from here
Except for the woman next door
Who strangely is hiding and sneaking
But always those blue eyes are peeking
Why is she always watching me?
She’s a crazy person watching me – yet she’s
A woman watching me.

Such is the set-up for the musical, promising, as musicals do, romance. But there are many exceptional things about this musical – not least that Mary and Eddie are puppets. The whole show is whimsical and fantastic. It’s written by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage with help from the Made in China Ensemble, and presented by Wakka Wakka, a co-production with Nordland Visual Theatre, MiNensemblet and the Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, at 59E59Theaters.

As the plot unfolds, Mary drowns her sorrows in a shopping spree, singing:
More! More! More! More! More!
I gotta get more! You gotta get more!
I gotta get more!

In fact, she gets more than she bargained for. In a box of Christmas decorations she finds a note written in Chinese and English that reads: “Help us! Good person please kindly take this letter to a human rights organization. I am a prisoner and work in unit 5 at the Masanjia labor camp.” It proceeds to describe beatings and torture.

Of course, she brings the letter to Eddie, and together the two of them have an exciting, silly, terrific adventure. They get sucked into her toilet, all the way to China. She finds that she can fly for a while, Eddie on her back, but they end up in a Chinese labor camp anyway. Then they enter a lovely bamboo forest where there’s a fabulous red dragon with glowing eyes.

One of the terrific things about the puppetry is that the puppets do things actors could never do, like getting sucked into the porcelain bowl, or getting eaten by that dragon. Moreover, there’s a singing plunger: “I come all the way from China,” it sings to Mary, “The land of ten thousand factories!” The plunger is soon joined by a lamp and a gun. “Help! My house is coming to life,” Mary screams into the phone.

And so the script introduces human rights and consumerism into its unlikely concept. In one of the best songs, Uncle Sam and Chairman Mao sing a duet:

Welcome to the Factory of Voluntary Joy!
We’re so happy you’ve arrived to help us make a toy! …
Labor is its own reward
What the Chairman most adored
We won’t give you room and board, you buy that on your dime.

The music is appealing, and it’s at its best when we hear the occasional sound of classical Chinese music. It’s performed by MiNensemblet with Yan Li and Max Mamon. Music and lyrics are written by Yan Li.

Finally, of course, the couple find themselves at home, where they have puppet sex on Mary’s sofa. The final song is a march, Mary and Eddie determine to take the letter she found to The New York Times, singing (with the help of the plunger):
All I need to change the world is you
Maybe like America, the dream can come true.

The clever puppets were created by Kirjan Waage. There are 30 of them in the show, but Mary and Eddie take nearly all the focus. They’re two or three feet tall, presented in the style of the Japanese bunraku puppetry tradition. There are seven puppeteers, dressed in black against the black back wall. Alex Goldberg’s lighting is so well done that we forget the puppeteers are there. The directors are the writers, Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, and they’ve gone to great lengths to place the puppets precisely on the stage. Their direction keeps surprising us.

Puppeteer Peter Russo voices Mary, and Ariel Estrada handles Eddie, both very well. Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James voice YoY o and Lily, the dogs, respectively, giving us terrific barking with great whimsy.

It would be a mistake to take the show too seriously. The plot elements are disjointed and the final political awakening is unconvincing. What’s more, some of the show is vulgar – after all, there’s a toilet involved. But the creative company manage to earn our belief in their puppet characters and, what’s more, to make us care about them. It’s all great fun!

Steve Capra
January 2017

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