Made in China is a decidedly adult musical from Wakka Wakka, a New York–based theater company that prides itself on challenging “the boundaries of the imagination” with “bold, unique, and unpredictable” entertainments. This visually engaging production is performed by a host of black-veiled puppeteers manipulating intricately crafted bunraku-style puppets designed by Kirjan Waage. The script, by Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock (“with help from the Made in China Ensemble”), pushes the boundaries of puppet earthiness with a vengeance—it features puppet nudity, a puppet performing ordinarily private bodily functions, puppet copulation (both human and canine), and a puppet-dragon that has a mind-blowing digestive system.
According to a program note, “everyone in Wakka Wakka has traveled to China” at various times over the last five years. “The feelings and questions we each had about China before traveling there became more complicated upon our return.” The resulting show, directed by Waage and Warnock, is a series of fanciful vignettes, punctuated with songs by Yan Li, set in a shamelessly consumerist United States and a People’s Republic of China characterized as the “land of ten thousand factories.”
The musical’s sometimes perplexing plot involves suburban neighbors Mary (Peter Russo), a blandly Caucasian matron, and Eddie (Ariel Estrada), a Chinese-American retiree. The relationship of the two is antagonistic and becomes downright adversarial when Mary pleads for help in decoding a magical document that has popped out of a package of Christmas ornaments made in China and purchased on a shopping spree at a discount superstore.
The document is a cry of desperation from a factory worker in China whose brutal circumstances are akin to those of the laborers depicted by monologuist Mike Daisey in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (and in the controversial segment Daisey performed on NPR’s This American Life). Eddie balks at Mary’s request for a translation—China, where he spent his early years, is a subject he doesn’t wish to discuss. (As Mary will discover later in the play, Eddie’s life was profoundly affected by the 1989 violence in Tiananmen Square).
Through a fanciful set of over-the-rainbow events, Mary and the document are transported to China and, against his will, Eddie follows. The route they travel is not as lofty as Dorothy Gale’s trip to Oz—Mary and Eddie are supernaturally sucked to the other side of the world through the toilet in Mary’s lavatory. (Later, they return to American suburbia through the alimentary canal of a dragon, reentering Mary’s house via her toilet.)
In Beijing, the two encounter smog, unbridled construction, and a variety of characters who praise the country’s prosperity and innovation. These include a dragon-lady entrepreneur known as Madame Millions (Lei Lei Bavoil), a onetime Tibetan monk (Charles Pang) now running the largest tourist operation in China, and a humble farmer turned dildo tycoon (Stephen J. Mark). After a run-in with police, the travelers find themselves in jail and, later, on an assembly line applying glitter to holiday ornaments like the ones Mary bought at her local discount superstore.
While the Wakka Wakka puppetry is of a high order, this musical’s theatrics mask a disappointing vacuity at the heart of the endeavor. The socio-political content of the piece seldom, if ever, rises above simplistic disavowals of alleged Chinese labor practices and American obsession with money and consumer durables. At a political indoctrination session, Mary and Eddie are subjected to a duet by Mao Tse-tung and Uncle Sam suggesting that the two countries promote similarly jaundiced work ethics: “Always do your very best / Follow orders, never rest / Only talk when you’re addressed / Don’t get sloppy or depressed / Beatings are a kind of test / Sins are lighter when confessed / Most important, don’t forget to let yourself have fun!”
The performance opens with a giant panda intoning with Trump-like inflection: “Jai-na, Jai-na, Jai-na, Jai-na, Jai-na.” Since this puppet isn’t seen again, the sequence appears to have been added in the heat of this post-election moment. And there’s a finale, similarly unconnected to the principal part of the production, that seems calculated to bring the curtain down on a feel-good (or, perhaps, merely feel-better) note.
Though Wakka Wakka is identified above the title as presenter, three other organizations are also responsible for Made in China. Minensemblet, a Norwegian chamber music ensemble, provides the show’s pleasant instrumental accompaniment and is credited as a co-producer. The other co-producers are the Nordland Visual Theatre from Vestvågøy, Norway, and The Hopkins Center of Dartmouth College. While it’s gratifying to encounter this sort of transnational collaboration among artists, it’s natural to wonder whether a clash of aesthetics among such disparate contributors may not be the cause of this show’s anemic socio-political perspective and the haphazard nature of its narrative.
Wakka Wakka’s Made in China plays through Feb. 19 in Theater A at 59E59 (59 East 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by visiting www.ticketcentral.com.