Made In China: Charm And Alarm

Wakka Wakka comes home to the Hopkins Center

Made In China is a visual carnival, beginning with the giant panda that gnaws its bamboo while peering through a scrim at an audience just taking their seats. It's an iconic tableau that gently charms. The pace picks up in the opening scenes, with various other puppets--including a flying toilet plunger, a telephone, and a gun--strutting their stuff. They dance, sing, and occasionally screech a story of love, American consumerism, and human rights abuses in China.

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Made in China is fresh from its off-Broadway run and making its way through New England venues. It played at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth last weekend, a homecoming of sorts. Made in China was in fact made in New York City, Connecticut, Norway and China, as well as Hanover, New Hampshire. In March of 2015, Dartmouth offered Wakka Wakka its first residency to develop the show. Yan Li, author of music and lyrics, said that he wrote one of the major numbers, Innovation, in the Hopkins Center garage.

Anti-heroine Mary is a lonely 56-year old woman with a loyal dog for companionship and a penchant for not liking what she sees in the mirror. She is the whiny, grumpy neighbor you hope never to encounter. The nakedness--not just of her body but of her unflinching self-observations--will keep you from total dislike. She's witty, and her laughter, sometimes self-deprecatory, helps to smooth her edges.

The opening premise would seem contrived except that it is based on a true story. Mary indulges in a shopping spree for holiday decorations and returns home to find a letter written in English and Chinese stuffed inside a box of ornaments. Its author is a worker in a Chinese labor camp who begs for help, asking Mary to alert human rights organizations in the United States about the camp's deplorable conditions. Is it a hoax? She takes it to Eddie, her Chinese neighbor, who coincidentally is also canine-companioned, middle-aged, and lonely, for his opinion.

Mary, with the mysterious letter from China

A logical narrative is not the strength of Made in China, and it is best just to get into a children's book mode and accept the implausible. Mary and Eddie are sucked headfirst into Mary's toilet and end up on a karst-like mountain in China, after which they are delivered to Beijing. Mary, in her clueless American style, mouths off to the Chinese police; as a result, she and Eddie end up in a Chinese labor camp. They bicker, but sweetly, like in old Hepburn-Tracy movies, which is how you know they are destined to fall in love.

Over 30 puppets populate this production, voiced and manipulated by black-shrouded performers that blend nimbly into the background. Their skill at the micro-movements of gesture adroitly produces what puppeteers ought to, as the lumpy Mary and Eddie become in-depth and human characters. (Avenue Q was ballyhooed for its unclothed puppets, but this is the first--at least for me-- that I had seen warnings of puppet nudity in a show's promotional literature.) The inevitable sex scene isn't much, but Mary's catching Eddie with no pants on is endearing, highlighting his fragility and her thin but developing warmth. Toward the end, her voice even modulates away from her earlier characteristic screech. More black-shrouded talent manipulates the props and scenery--such as Mary's refrigerator, a supermarket that magically appears in seconds, a sinuous dragon, and that all important toilet portal--with dizzying speed and impeccable timing.

If the love story, quirky as it is, satisfies, the political points are harder to digest. In an after-show discussion in which one of the performers was asked about his impressions of China during a recent visit there, he said, speaking geographically, "It's massive." The ideas raised but not resolved in this piece are massive too, so much so that it's a challenge to present them fully in a ninety minute window. One's satisfaction with the political aspects of Made in China might also depend on how you like your political critique. There is little clarity here. It may speak to those who want theater such as this to raise questions, and not to those who are expecting answers. The closing musical number is ambiguous—either hopeful, or hopelessly naive.

You’ll want to keep an eye on Wakka Wakka. Their puppetry skills are impressive, the staging inventive and undeniably entertaining, even if their political observations could use some added punch.

(A similar version of this article appeared in Boston's Arts Fuse Magazine. You can find it here.)

Photos courtesy of Wakka Wakka Productions and the Hopkins Center.

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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge



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