Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review: Morality Puppets

By Michael Block

Whether we like it or not, we live in a lovely bubble here in America. We take for granted the journey of the products we use. Though we may read a story or two, until you see the other side, it's hard to truly understand. Created by Wakka Wakka and written by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage with help from the ensemble, Made in China is a political satire like nothing you've seen before.
A fantastical twisted whimsy is on the slate at Made in China. Like a mix of Pee Wee Herman and Seth MacFarlane, Made in China is a puppet extravaganza about a Caucasian woman and her Chinese neighbor who get transported to China after being sucked through her toilet. Going on a journey after they receive a mysterious SOS letter, Mary and Eddie see firsthand the hardships of the workers in China. Told almost entirely through rude and crude song and puppetry, Made in China is a cartoonish romp that packs a feisty punch. The humor Warnock and Waage infuses is colorfully ominous, helping to ensure the message is heard loud and clear. With the puppet nature of the narrative, when the story goes off the rails, it is forgiven. In a way. Using puppetry as the means to tell the story allowed the absurdity that usually appears on screen to resonate on stage.
photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Made in China either lives or dies through the puppets. The entire ensemble, decked out in black, transformed the materials into living, breathing souls. Created by Kirjan Waage, there was something endearing about the intentionally sloppy style of the puppet craft. At first it was jarring but it captured the essence of the tone Wakka Wakka was offering in the text. Once you warned up to the characterization, this world came to life. Physicality aside, the vocal abilities of the company was spot on. Peter Russo and Ariel Estrada found a real voice for Mary and Eddie respectively. The played off one another quite well. The other strong showing came from utility player Andy Manjuck, taking on some of the most comical personas.
Directors Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage maintained a consistent tone that carried through the themes. Even when dipped into reality, they allowed the humor to seep in. Though we didn't get to see it in all it's glory, the bamboo proscenium forest designed by Warnock, Waage, and Yu-Ting Lin added a bit of mystery while allowing a jungle gym to be formed. Warnock and Waage's staging was sharp and intricate. Playing mostly in the dark, the company needed to hit their marks precisely or Alex Goldberg's lights would be off. By being so specific, Goldberg helped keep the momentum up.
If logic and politically correct theater is more your speed, Made in China is absolutely not for you. But if you like boundaries being challenged, Wakka Wakka has done so. It's not perfect but it's perfectly refreshing. And the panda puppet at the top? Worth it just for that.