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Theatre in Review: Vancouver (Ma-Yi Theater Company)

If you're looking for a distinctly different online theatre experience, consider this effort of the Ma-Yi Theater Company, presented in association with Chicago Puppet Theater Festival. Ordinarily, the words "puppet theater" have your correspondent reaching for some other diversion, up to and including sorting his sock drawer. But this brief, haunting piece has the quality of a fine short story, populated with characters who leave a powerfully lingering impression.

The 30-minute piece was filmed on a farm in Wisconsin where a group of theatre artists assembled to work under the usual COVID restrictions. Writer-director Ralph B. Peña's method combine puppeteers, working with small figures on a miniature set, with voiceover actors; the result is unusually cinematic. After a few minutes, it's easy to forget one isn't watching a film with living actors.

This is, in part, due to Peña's script, which sketches in the three members of a troubled family unit with precision, rendering their sorrows engagingly and leaving room for a hint of mystery about them. The middle-aged Hiro (voiced by James Yaegashi), a Japanese man living in the city of the title, is more than a little depressed, and for good reason. His marriage to Amy (Cindy Cheung), a Caucasian, is sinking fast, in part because he is jobless and unmotivated to do anything about it, and also because their daughter, Ashley (Shannon Tyo) is, at 21, something of a burden: Living on the autism spectrum, Ashley alternates between a job she hates, and endless hours spent on the Internet, texting and playing video games. Possessed of a sharp intelligence, she is also rigid, withdrawn, and given to destabilizing state of rage. It takes but a few minutes for Peña to establish that all three are living under the same roof, are, nevertheless, profoundly alone. They are also strangely rootless: Hiro, who feels adrift in Canada, believes they would be better off with his parents in Japan. But, as Amy tartly notes, they've tried that, and she hated the feeling of being an outsider. Ashley's only contact with others is via digital technology. Their home is a halfway house that provides emotional shelter for no one.

This state of affairs is made manifest when Hiro, sneaking into the bedroom, tries to rouse Amy, once again passed out from drinking, for some lovemaking; meanwhile, the overhead camera pans into Ashley's room where, baffled, she struggles to make sense of the sexual overtures of a chatmate. It's a melancholy diptych of unfulfillment. Ashley's flirty chatmate turns out to be a 14-year-old girl, a fact that brings more trouble and causes Hiro to make a move that leaves everything unsettled. Throughout, Peña vividly dramatizes the characters' state of emotional checkmate while leaving room to speculate about their apparently happy past and increasingly sketchy future. This is the rare piece of online theatre with considerable staying power.

KT Shivak's puppet design elegantly suggest the strains that have shaped all of the characters; the play's diciest gambit is the family dog, who speaks only to Hiro; this potentially cutesy idea works in part because it gives Hiro an outlet to express his bottled-up emotions and because the dog puppet is so convincing. The puppeteers Mark Blashford, Tom Lee, and Shivak perform with such understated professionalism that they all but vanish from the camera frame. The entire cast, including Daniel K. Isaac, as Lucky, the dog, performs with sensitivity to the script's thorny thicket of emotions. Other notable contributions are made by director of photography Francisco Aliwalas, Jarein Son (lead scenic designer), and sound designer Paul Lieber. The overall production design is by Chicago Puppet Studio. Special mention must be made of Fabian Obispo's subtle, touching musical score.

Vancouver is a welcome original, made with rigor and economy, leaving the characters plenty of breathing room. A half-hour spent with them is good for the soul. You can access it at ma-yistudios.com/. -- David Barbour

(6 May 2021)

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