Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
K-pop plays softly overhead as we find our seats preshow. We breathe in the mix of Korean and English sounds as we drink in the sight of a stage set for a young child’s school lunchroom, except there is both the familiar (pizza) and unfamiliar (spam and rice). Juxtaposition takes center stage before a word is even uttered during “Tornkid”: what language is this? What food is this? What world is this?
Written by playwright Katelynn Kenney, “Tornkid” follows the child of immigrants pulled between cultures and identities, who accidentally fulfills their wish that they could just tear themselves in two. Drawing on the power of Southeast Asian and Pacific Indigenous creation stories, “Tornkid” is a brand-new narrative that brilliantly elucidates what it means to be a young multicultural individual navigating the world. Under the direction of Cara Hinh and Donna Ibale, much of its brilliance is precisely in its lack of specificity when it comes to naming a particular culture, language, or identity it is referring to; rather, we follow Tornkid through a world populated by parents, classmates, spirit guides, and evil spirits whose specific cultural roots are malleable, therefore making the piece a delightful, universal bildungsroman.
That’s not to say that any of the characters are flat, however. Led by the fiery and enchanting breakthrough star Surasree Das as the titular character, this small, diverse ensemble tackles the lyricism of the script and innovation of the puppets with enthusiasm and grace. Each actor flits from character to character, donning incredible masks and puppets by Jess Rassp and Tara Cariaso that not only express character identity changes, but beg a larger pedagogical question of the faces and masks we as a society, and more specifically that mixed race and immigrant children, must present to the world. The transient, mythical settings Tornkid must journey through to find their missing half are constructed by beautiful, simplistic, multi-purpose fabric design also by Jess Rassp, that provides the actors with a sort of sandbox with which to pull fantastical storytelling tools from every corner, whether utilizing fabric to embody a shadow or the deep underwater. This world is inhabited by many colorful creatures including the pugnacious tree spirit (Elizabeth Ung), compassionate fairy goddess and aging trapped fisherman (Marela Kay Minosa), and the aptly named Trickster (Mika J Nakano). Acting as Tornkid’s, and the audience’s, guide is the Magic Teller (Kim Le), a gentle presence urging us on through charming interactive sections of the script that are (and this is a compliment compared to too many theatrical endeavors nowadays) non-intimidating; from clapping to whistling to urging Tornkid along their journey, these sections bring the audience joyfully into the story, into the myth, and suggest the show’s possible future as an incredible piece to travel to schools and young audiences wanting to spread the message of self-love and acceptance.
“Tornkid”’s innovation and creativity spinning the familiar with the unfamiliar through multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural storytelling will only continue to resonate with audiences. By the end of the show, we chant with Tornkid as they reconcile their two halves together, “I am enough,” a rallying support cry not just for this one fictional character but for an immigrant crisis endangering real lives in our very real world. While we may not be battling in entangled trees or mythical clouds or underwater like Tornkid, we as a multi-cultural society of immigrants must grapple with a reality of entangled law enforcement, clouds of self-doubt, and drowning in financial crises worsening every day. What Tornkid is fighting in this beautifully constructed myth for a new age is not a literal shadow or a sea monster, but ultimately the dark recesses of their own mind, brought about by their own peers’ bullying. And just like the set, masks, and puppets of “Tornkid,” an immigrant child’s mind right now is just as malleable; but behind all the political and societal noise, like Tornkid says, they are “enough.”
“Tornkid” by Katelynn Kenney is directed by Cara Hinh and Donna Ibale. It was conceptualized with Members of Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective and Cohesion
Theatre Company. “Tornkid” stars Kim Le, Elizabeth Ung, Mika J. Nakano, Marela Kay Minosa, and Surasree Das. Design includes Jess Rassp (Scenic/Puppet Design), Miranda Poett (Lighting Designer), C. Swan-Streepy (Sound Designer), Elizabeth Ung (Costume Designer), Tara Cariaso (Mask Designer), Pauline Lamb (Props Designer), and Jess Rassp and Tara Cariaso (Movement Choreographers). Cori Dioquino and Katelynn Kenney produce. Run time is one hour fifteen minutes, no intermission.
“Tornkid” ran at The Tank’s 56 Seat Theater (312 W 36th St, 1st Floor) as part of the LadyFest on August 8-11, 2019. For more information, please visit www.thetanknyc.org.
Photo of Surasree Das.