Ma-Yi Theater Uses Puppetry to Explore Anti-Asian Aggression in the Experimental Vancouver

The Streaming Experience: Ma-Yi Theater’s Vancouver

By Ross

It’s a truly surprising and engaging moment when the lid is lifted off the boxes that cradle the intricate puppets that will soon become the visual and emotional centerpieces of Vancouver, a theatrical experiment in art and creativity from Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. The curled up forms are striking, and ultimately captivating, appearing to be something like sleeping beauties from an alternate plane, etched in worry and concentration. Once brought to life by the grip and guidance of a number of talented puppeteers, these solid and intricately built characters find emotional engagement that rival live actors on a stage, transforming ideas and detachment with a simple gesture as the walls float away with symbolic ease. “Sometimes I think of father, he kept order in the house.” The disorder within fractures the damaged sub-structure, leaving the complications of love and familial connection fully exposed, as the surrender and the leaving happen regardless of any desire withheld, but not because of bad news or a dismissal of ideals.

Observing all of the strict COVID-19 protocols that a controlled environment can facilitate, a strong group of artists in September 2020, pulled together by Ma-Yi, assembled in a barn in Wisconsin with these cocooned wooden creations in order to find a way to emotionally create an inventive and meaningful puppet play staging. The result of this collaborative experiment is Vancouver, an impressively touching story centered, most intimately, on a mixed-race family struggling intensely and internally with the anti-Asian hate that has been ignited within current America. Violence and intolerance is thrown in this family’s face, quite literally, after relocating from Japan to the Pacific Northwest. They came with the hope of finding more stability within themselves and their community, only to face further heightened tensions and conflicts inside and out. Clashing hard inside every moment of interaction, the dashed hopes of acceptance and peace give way to utter disconnection and dissatisfaction. It’s a lot to take in and process, all that intense anger being lashed out at one another, with the larger more personal questions remaining fully intact. Swirling around their very existence, they ask one another: Where is the loyalty, the love, and the idea of home at the end of the day when darkness brings isolation, drunkenness, and unrelenting disappointment? And will they find the connections within to survive and thrive together?

It’s compelling and utterly thoughtful, creating symbolic vistas and metaphoric scenarios that are well executed, intense, and complex. Written and directed by Ma-Yi Producing Artistic Director Ralph B. Peña with a strong collaboration with puppetry director Tom Lee, Vancouver explores themes of engagement and anti-Asian aggressions with subtle hand-to-hand movements and structural management, that dig in while we watch a family falling apart. It truly is a work of precision, craftsmanship, and art, finding a way gingerly across a difficult terrain. The creations, especially the father, Hiro, and his faithful dog, Lucky, find intimacy within their sadness, especially when Hiro dutifully carries his angry wife to bed after one too many glasses of disappointment. A number of threads are meticulously unspooled, almost too many for a 30-minute show to entangle and explore. They engage us in thoughtful contemplation, but also leave us a bit hungry wanting more to see through and unpack. But in that contemplation, they do manage to tell us a lot about the artistry of these creators. We watch with wonder as the puppet people find their way into our heart and our blood stream with such clarity, leaving their indentations on our emotional soul as we watch them struggle, in some very human ways, to find autonomy and connectivity within a family unit on the brink of collapse.

Featuring a crew of puppeteers that include Lee, Mark Blashford, and K.T. Shivak alongside the vocal talents of Cindy Cheung as Amy, Daniel K. Isaac as Lucky, Shannon Tyo as Ashley, and James Yaegashi as Hiro, Vancouver unearths layers of conflict and anger inside each of these family members. The daughter’s pain engulfs us, and the wife’s hurt dissatisfaction intoxicates us with a sad poison. “You didn’t come with instructions,” she says with bitterness and helplessness to her daughter, forever finding disappointment in the fractured connection that is completely beyond her comprehension. But it is something in the face of Hiro and his best friend, Lucky, that we can’t live without. Their bond delivers truth, much like Vancouver‘s creative team that includes Alec Styborski (editor), Francisco Aliwalas (director of photography), Fabian Obispo (composer), Jaerin Son (lead scenic design), Chicago Puppet Studio (production design), K.T. Shivak (puppet design), Blair Thomas (puppetry consultant), Aaron Herschlag (grip), Eric Roediger (motion graphics), Jesse Jae Hoon (titles), Paul Lieber (sound design) and Three Crown Studios (sound mastering). The puppetry piece, although not entirely perfect in its tense, disjointed storytelling script and untethered emotional arc, delivers a sincerity and clarity that is commendable. One look into those doggy eyes tells us everything we need to know about this almost heartbreaking story of attachment. It truly lingers on, long after the plane takes off, leaving us unsettled, albeit somewhat unfulfilled, compellingly engaged, and forever curious. Like so many of the puppet strings and structural threads, that deep sense of loss and sadness in that final shot is one I thoroughly embrace, a desire to connect while unpacking that telling look far more than the time allotted.

Vancouver was a gut-level response to the pandemic and the shuttering of live theater,” says Peña. “We had to find a way to work safely, so I thought of puppets, and knew immediately that I wanted to work with Tom Lee. From there, my mind quickly moved to tell the story of a mixed-race Asian American family dealing with racial aggressions.”

“When Ralph approached me about telling a contemporary Asian American story with puppetry, I leaped at the chance to collaborate with him,” said Lee. “Throughout the process, we were dealing with the pandemic and also the painful and ongoing reckoning in the country about racism. We saw elected leaders openly espouse racist rhetoric and split the country into us and them. Vancouver is not only about trying to make a beautiful piece of art in challenging times. It is about portraying a story of a mixed-race Asian American family navigating the fraught environment of our country. Telling this story is especially crucial at this moment.”

Following the 2020 opening of Ma-Yi Studios, a digital streaming center and live capture studio, Ma-Yi Theater Company, in association with The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, is proud to present the online premiere of Vancouver, a puppet play centered on a mixed-race family who relocate from Japan to the Pacific Northwest.

Vancouver will debut on April 30 at 7 PM ET at https://ma-yistudios.com/, the streaming platform for Ma-Yi’s 2020-2021 season. While the production is available at no cost, audiences are encouraged to consider a donation by following the directions at the Vancouver website. The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival website, chicagopuppetfest.org, will also offer a free link to the production. Vancouver is intended for audiences 13 and older.

Since its founding in 1989, Ma-Yi Theater Company has distinguished itself as one of the country’s leading incubators of new work shaping the national discourse about what it means to be Asian American today.

Please visit www.ma-yistudios.com for more information.

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