Wakka Wakka, the theater company behind Made in China, says the show is “inspired by true events.” I suspect the true part doesn’t include Mary and her neighbor getting sucked down her toilet and winding up in the People’s Republic of China, where a dragon eats them.
This puppet musical – equal parts surreal fantasy, bawdy romantic comedy, barbed political satire, and hilariously inventive visual spectacle — does include at least one true event, sort of. In a verified story that occurred in 2012, a New York shopper discovered inside the packaging of the boots she bought from Saks Fifth Avenue a handwritten note from someone seeking help, because he said he was a captive in a Chinese prison factory.
In Made in China, such a note literally floats out of a package of Christmas decorations that Mary, a lonely middle-aged suburban divorcee (voiced by Peter Russo) bought on her latest void-filling shopping spree. She goes to her next-door neighbor, Eddie (Ariel Estrada), a lonely Chinese-American immigrant, to ask for his advice.
“Is this some kind of a joke?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out…Is there a problem here?”
“The problem is people like you,” Eddie says, and slams the door in her face.
Baffled, and upset, and blaming herself for her gullibility, Mary flushes the note down her toilet. But then, worried she’d clogged it, gets hold of her toilet plunger – which greets her in Chinese, flies out of her hand, and starts to sing to her. It introduces itself – “I come all the way from China, the land of ten thousand factories” — thanks her for bringing it into her home, along with every other product and appliance in her home, all made in China.
A gun appears next to the plunger, singing:
I was made by children in Hunan!
Fifteen hours each day, they’re having fun!
Safely tucked away from awful sun
make for you the cheapest All-American gun!
The satire here manages to strike a blow both against gun proliferation and worker exploitation, the latter being the main political issue that the show explores. The show is artful in avoiding a feeling of American smugness while criticizing the human rights record in China. “Work Song,” a duet between Mao and Uncle Sam, is one of several moments arguing that neither nation looks out for its workers:
Uncle Sam: Only talk when you’re addressed
Mao: Don’t get sloppy or depressed
Written and directed by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, with a tuneful score by Yan Li, Made in China is so smart and entertaining in so many ways that one easily forgives the incoherent storyline upon which the satirical aspects are built, which involves the aforementioned hallucinogenic trip down the toilet and the dragon as well a mountain of bamboo shoots and a prison factory… (It’s not really worth trying to explain.) More accessible is the growing relationship between Mary and Eddie, which is touching even as it skirts the obscene. The nudity and sex and gross-out scatological touches in Made in China make Avenue Q look like, well, Sesame Street.
But what’s best about Made for China is not the politics or the poignancy or the pornography, but the puppetry. Small moments — when Eddie uses his backscratcher to scratch his dog Yo Yo’s belly, or hangs up Christmas lights in his backyard; when Mary first excites her dog Lily with a string of jingle bells but then angrily shuts her up — are so cleverly executed, so laugh-out-loud funny – so delightful — that I’ll admit to some momentary demented disappointment at the curtain call when Eddie and Mary and their dogs didn’t show up to bow along with the seven terrific black-clad Bunraku puppeteers who had made them come to life.
Made in China is on stage at 59E59 Theater (59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Aves., New York, N.Y. 10022 ) through February 19, 2017.
Tickets and details