Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Theater Review: Stuck Elevator -- New Haven Festival of Arts & Ideas

Photo: Kevin Berne
The American Dream, Immigration Woes, Super Heroes Converge in a Stuck Elevator
By Lauren Yarger
How many people can you fit comfortably in one elevator? If you have great musical and storytelling ability, like composer Byron Au Yong and librettist Aaron Jafferis, creators of Stuck Elevator, playing at Long Wharf Theatre as part of the New Haven Festival of Arts and Ideas, the answer is quite a few.

They tell the story (based on a true one) of Guang (Julius Ahn), an illegal immigrant who gets stuck in a Bronx elevator for 81 hours while making deliveries for the Happy Dragon Chinese Restaurant. 

Something goes wrong after Guang pushes the button in the elevator (designed by Daniel Ostling in open-frame fashion) on Friday at 6:55 pm. A series of noises and flashing lights leave the elevator disabled and Guang, too afraid to use the emergency call button which will summon police who might question his documentation, waits patiently for a repairman to come and let him go (sound and design by Mikhail Fiksel; Ted Boyce-Smith is credited as associate lighting designer). No one realizes he’s in the elevator, however, and he remains trapped until early Tuesday morning.

As minutes turn to hours, Guang finds ways to occupy the time and divert his thoughts from the fact that he only has a few packets of soy, duck and sweet-and-sour sauce and a fortune cookie to eat and that there is nowhere to relieve himself. The fortune’s cookie’s message comes true: “You will soon be aware of your growing awareness.”

He thinks about his wife, Ming (Marie-France Arcilla), and son (Raymond Lee) back home in China. It has been two years since he left them in search of a better life in America with his nephew (also Lee), hidden in a container aboard a ship. He still owes $80,000 to the criminal who smuggled them in, and every hour away from his takeout deliveries means money lost in tips. It also means lost revenue for the restaurant, and the Boss’s wife (played by male Francis Jue) can be less than sympathetic. She once required him to pay back $200 taken when he was mugged at knifepoint.

As hours turn to days, Guang keeps telling himself things could be worse. He remembers his loved ones and incidents from his life. He is “visited” by these folks, along with co-worker and fellow illegal immigrant Marco (Joel Perez), to whom Guang now regrets selling the cell phone which might have allowed him to call for help. His thoughts sustain him, but also reveal how he is consumed by the need for money to pay off his debts and an overwhelming sense that he is letting everyone down and losing face.

The story is compelling and richly directed by Chay Yew. Yong’s hybrid score is entertaining and melodic, sung by exceptional voices. Korean-American tenor Ahn reprises this role from Stuck Elevator’s world premiere at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco (a workshop version was performed at Festival 2010 as part of the Yale Institute for Music Theatre). Music described as “comic-rap-scrap metal” might cause doubt, but opera and rap seem as natural here as soy sauce with fried rice.

New Haven native Jafferis’ book is seasoned with humor. At one point, as Guang begins to hallucinate, he imagines a contest between super-hero “Takeout Man” and “Otis, the Elevator,” a robotic, elevator monster (creatively costumed by designer Myung Hew Cho). There are some moments of confusion, however – why did Guang get into the elevator to make a takeout delivery without any food, for example, and at one point, from the action, I thought he already had been freed from the elevator only to discover that he was still in there.

The show also could use some trimming (it seemed a little long even at just 80 minutes with no intermission), but when we realize that for every minute on stage, the real takeout delivery man spent an hour trapped in that elevator, this is a minor complaint. This unique and absorbing presentation stays with you after you leave the theater. It will remind you to be grateful for the freedoms we have in this country the next time you call for Chinese takeout.

Stuck Elevator runs at Long Wharf Theatre Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through June 29. Performances: 8 pm on June 25, 27, 28; 2pm and 8 pm on June 26, 29.. Tickets $35-$55: (203) 787-4282; http://artidea.org/.

Un-Stuck Theater
with Aaron Jafferis
Thursday, June 27
10 am
Southern Connecticut State University
Lyman Center Mainstage Auditorium
501 Crescent St.

Theatre of the Oppressed is an interactive, physical and playful tool developed by Brazilian theatre maker Augusto Boal to un-stick ourselves from situations in which we are stuck. Inspired by themes from the musical Stuck Elevator, participants will use Boal-inspired games and exercises to chew on immigration, labor, Orange Beef, and other pressing issues.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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