Off-Broadway Review: “Made in China” at 59E59 Theaters

David Roberts

OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

When sparring, couples often find themselves deadlocked and unable to move forward in therapy. When children have difficulty sharing the uncomfortable scenarios being played out in their lives, they often turn to silence as a coping mechanism. Sometimes, therapists use puppets to allow their patients to express significant uncomfortable feelings. The theatre has also used puppets to say things it might be difficult for humans to say or to parody human behavior: Broadway’s “Hand to God” and Off Broadway’s “Avenue Q” and “That Golden Girls Show” and the eleven-day puppet-related stage productions in Chicago are current examples. In both settings – therapy and theatre – the antics of the puppets often push the limits of propriety to express deep feelings and to raise rich and enduring questions.

Such are the antics of Wakka Wakka’s puppets in their “Made in China” currently running at 59E59 Theaters. In co-production with Nordland visual Theatre, MiNEnsemblet, and the Hopkins Center of Dartmouth College, Wakka Wakka fulfills its mission “to push the boundaries of the imagination” with this daring exploration of the relationship of the United States to China and of the underbelly of America’s current political climate.

Sino-American relations, human rights violations, work camps, refugees, consumerism, recycling, “Made-in-America,” and the relentless decay of life are all themes addressed in the one hour and twenty-five-minute fusillade of fantasy provided by Kirjan Waage’s puppets, Yan Li’s music and lyrics, Gwendolyn Warnock’s and Kirjan Waage’s writing, and the MiNEnsemblet orchestra. The engaged audience leaves the theatre with one enduring question resounding in its members’ minds, bodies, and psyches: is there anything left in this world worth dying for?

Eddie Wang (Ariel Estrada) has emigrated to the United States from China and with his dog Yo-Yo (Andy Manjuck) lives next door to American-born Mary (Peter Russo) and her dog Lily (Dorothy James). Despite their cultural divide, these two interact with some cordiality and often challenge one another’s stereotypes and assumptions about the other’s life experiences. This is an odd couple: Eddie, longing for a visit from his offspring, teaches Yo-Yo “new words;” Mary spends much time at home in the nude watching television and eating macaroni and cheese on the couch. Yes, there’s frontal nudity, obscene language, bathroom breaks, and even penetration between these two scamps. “Made in China” makes “Hand to God” and “Avenue Q” look like a Sunday School skit.

But the importance of “Made in America” transcends prurient parameters. Without giving too much away, Mary and Eddie both take a dive down the proverbial rabbit hole (in this case, Mary’s toilet) and find themselves in China where Eddie meets the brother he left behind and Eddie and Mary embark on a magical realism tour that includes monologues from Mao (Charles Pang), Uncle Sam (Stephen J. Mark) and the Voice of the Letter (Charles Pang) Mary found tucked away in the Made in China Christmas decorations she purchased back home, the voice of a Chinese sweat shop worker looking for intervention.

While in this “dream sequence,” the pair confront their own culpability in trade imbalances, consumerism, and their lives of decay. They return to the USA changed individuals and their journey challenges the audience to examine all prior misconceptions about China – it is not all panda bears and bamboo. “Made in China” deals with the challenges America faces in its relationship to China and in its own internal struggles for relevance in the global economy and political matrix. Even the voice of the POTUS can be heard in the opening sequence. “Made in China’s” puppets often push the limits of propriety to express deep feelings and to raise rich and enduring questions. It does not get any more relevant than that.


The “Made in China” puppeteers are Lei Lei Bavoil, Ariel Estrada, Dorothy James, Andrew Manjuck, Stephen J. Mark, Charles Pang, Peter Russo, Hansel Tan Shenwei, and Hansel Tan. Music performed by The MiNensemblet with Yan Li and Max Mamon. (Please note that the MiNensemblet will be performing live January 10 – February 4 only.) The company is led by Gabrielle Brechner, Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock and supported by company members Andrew Manjuck and Peter Russo.

The design team includes Yu Ting Lin (set design); Alex Goldberg (lighting design); and Tiger Cai (video animation). The Production Stage Manager is Mackenzie Blade. Production photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

“Made in China” runs through Sunday, February 19. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM; and Sunday at 3 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are $25 - $60 ($25 - $49 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit Running time is 1 hour 25 minutes without intermission

Photo: Peter Russo as Mary and Ariel Estrada as Eddie in Made In China at 59E59 Theaters. Credit: Heidi Bohnenkamp.