Made in China, the first musical by the fabulously inventive puppeteer ensemble Wakka Wakka, may be the troupe’s most charming production yet. Brightly gripping, and written and directed in a classic fabulist style by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, it’s replete with innovative marvels of illusion; moreover, it centers on two of the more memorable puppet characters I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Four, if you count the dogs.
Mary and Eddie Wang (“pronounced ‘Wong'”) are middle-aged neighbors whose relationship consists mostly of annoying one another with noise complaints. That is, until Mary, a self-confessed “consumer whore,” goes to the big-box store to buy Christmas decorations (“Gotta Get More!”) and finds in the packaging a mysterious plea for help from a Chinese political prisoner.
Unhappily alone with their randy canines, their families absent or neglectful, Mary and her neighborly nemesis are magically sucked to China – where, as household product-puppets have just taught her, everything in her home (even some of the food in her fridge – I’m looking at you, garlic!) is made. There on the other side of the world, a whirlwind cultural education for Mary devolves into a stint in a rehabilitation camp where the pair are forced to make Christmas tree ornaments.
There, too, Eddie runs headlong into the frightful past he tried to leave behind when he left China. The story deepens into sociopolitical commentary even as it expands into increasingly impressive feats of puppetry and stagecraft – projections on moving flats, a bamboo forest, a terrifying dragon, and horror-movie possession, not to mention the removal of puppet clothing. No, this rich, colorful fantasy/love story may have amazing puppetry and Yan Li’s cute, smart songs with clever lyrics and bouncy Asian-sounding accompaniment, but it’s not a children’s show.
For the most part, the story’s disparate elements turn out to have meaning as part of a cohesive narrative. There’s even a satisfying full-circle aspect, with Mary closing the action in the same state and in the same place as she began it. I didn’t care for the obviousness of the closing number’s appeal to activism, but musically it was as jaunty as the rest of the songs and it amounted to but a minimal droop in an otherwise fully sustained intelligent creative spirit.
With literally flying colors, Made in China passes the primary test of this kind of puppetry: Even when the black-clad puppeteers are visible, it takes just moments to eliminate them from your consciousness and begin to hear their voices as coming from the mouths of the crafted characters.
Alex Goldberg’s lighting design and technical direction deserve special kudos for spatial wizardry. A co-production with Nordland Visual Theatre, Minensemblet, and the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, Wakka Wakka’s Made in China is Off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters through Feb. 19.