Being stuck in the world of 410[GONE] might seem like Hell for most people. After all, it is a trippy video game afterlife full of maddening puzzles based on Dance Dance Revolution and manic Chinese deities that get high off of human pain. While it is Hell of a sort (technically more of a purgatory) for both mortals and immortals trapped there, watching this world is heavenly. Audiences drink in the intensity of Rorschach’s signature immersive design while a kinetically gifted cast plays out parallel stories of mysterious adventure and devastating loss.
The story follows two earnest searches for meaning in the face of loss. TWENTY-ONE is a 21 year old Chinese-American woman who is desperately looking for the reasons behind her brother’s suicide by sending digital messages to him and recreating the circumstances of his death again and again, 49 days straight. SEVENTEEN is that brother, and he has found himself in the video-game-esque world of the dead, without any knowledge of how he got there or who he was. He faces down Guan Yin (the Chinese Goddess of Mercy) and the Chinese folk hero the Monkey King in a series of tests where he can earn back his memories and, unbeknownst to him, earn the peace of reincarnation.
With these parallels, playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig has made a mash up. A traditional literary fantasy hero’s journey with SEVENTEEN’s attempts to find himself combines with TWENTY-ONE’s common contemporary theatrical narrative most identifiable as a “grieving play,” where the main characters’ objective is to come to terms with a death (think She Kills Monsters or Still Life with Rocket as recently produced examples in the DC area). As a result, 410[GONE] feels both mythic and fresh, penetrating heart and mind with equal ease.
But the real magic of 410[GONE] is, appropriately for this time of year, in the Easter Eggs, and I don’t mean the candy-filled plastic ovoids. In tech speak, an Easter Egg is an unexpected or undocumented feature in a piece of computer software included as a joke or bonus, but in this play, you get those bonuses if you are familiar with the intricately integrated themes of the play: technology and Chinese myth.
For example, take the title. 410 Gone is the return message for a browser pointer to a permanently deleted location on a server. Or perhaps think of the timing of the action of the play, which takes place 49 days after SEVENTEEN’s death which is exactly how long a Chinese Buddhist funeral lasts. This thoroughness goes beyond the niche though, as the playwright slyly drops the moral of the play fewer than 10 minutes in through Guan Yin’s advice to a praying mortal: “Pain may not be optional, but suffering is.” Cowhig shows obsessive attention to detail backed up by voluminous dramaturgical work by the Rorshach team that not only gives 410 [Gone] an essential inscrutability in the act of seeing the play. They shower audiences with a vast trove of rewards as you remember and research the materials you’re given afterwards. It’s hard for most plays to make an impact outside of the theater, especially fantasy plays like this one, but credit goes to Cowhig and director Gregory Keng Strasser for making one that does.
closes April 15, 2018
Details and tickets
That’s not even mentioning the brilliance of this cast, who prove their craft with expert physical work. Yasmin Tuazon as Guan Yin plays an unrelentingly vicious domme to Jacob Yeh’s Monkey King until she doesn’t, and her change is one of the most exquisite moments I’ve seen on stage this year. Yeh is no slouch either with moments of physical magic, like freezing for an interminable time onstage and selling it like a pro. Linda Bard as TWENTY-ONE and Sebastian Amoruso as SEVENTEEN (who, in a rare treat, is actually in the age range of the character and not playing down) get to show off some emotional chops in their leading roles, and you should expect to see both of them in leads in the future. They make relatively unsympathetic characters relatable, if not likable or lovable, a difficult task. Each mostly hits one note, but they hit it strong. When they find the balance of changing tones for lead characters that seem flat, these actors will reach the peak of their game.
The design of this play presents a similar challenge: how do you make something that seems like one note feel like a melody? Set Designer Debra Kim Sivigny finds a balance by concentrating the intensity of the Chinese afterlife on a shallow stage with a long catwalk running through the audience, physically separating the audience from itself and the real world (on a raised platform upstage) from the digital world below. Both are apt metaphors for the leads of the play, but practically speaking, I would encourage audience members to grab seats in the back of the theater so you can observe all the action. Director Keng Strasser uses every bit of the stage to create beautiful layered effects with set, sound, and lighting design interacting with the actors, and you don’t want to miss it.
Layers are a deep running theme in Rorschach’s production of 410[GONE], from the textual Easter Eggs to the multifaceted design to the stripping away of the main characters’ suffering. Sustaining such depth is an enormous job, but a rewarding one, that gives its audience “Aha!” moments not only during the run, but for days after. Reward yourself by buying a ticket.
410[GONE] by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Directed by Gregory Keng Strasser. Featuring Sebastian Amoruso. Linda Bard, Andrew Quilpa, Yasmin Tuazon, and Jacob Yeh. Set Design by Debra Kim Sivigny. Lighting Design by Katie McCreary. Sound Design by Roc Lee. Costume Design by Rhe’a Roland. Projection Design by Kylos Brannon. Props Design by Rachael Knoblauch. Stage Management by Linz Moore. Produced by Rorschach Theatre. Reviewed by Alan Katz.