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It’s Their Turn to Save the World

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In Ma-Yi’s family show, Asian-American kids are the heroes

It’s hardly a surprise when a children’s show has a message. Once adults start impersonating the young, there’s a mighty temptation to preach about the rewards of kindness or being tidy. But in Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production of Lloyd Suh’s The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra GO!, the message isn’t in a tidy moral during the final scene. It’s in the very existence of the show.

The Wong Kids‘ story is taken straight from the Young Adult pantheon: Marginalized adolescents discover superpowers, a galactic menace approaches, and supernatural beings lurk throughout an unassuming neighborhood.

Wrapped in the familiarity, though, is something casually radical. Two Asian-American siblings save the universe.

Since 1989, Ma-Yi has been nurturing and producing Asian-American theatre and theatremakers. The company originally focused on Filipino-American artists, then broadened its mission to the Pan Asian-American community in 1998. To make a seemingly simple children’s show, Ma-Yi reached out even further, spearheading a collaboration that includes the Ensemble Studio Theater, the Children’s Theater Company (CTC) in Minneapolis, and the Great Jones Rep. (New York performances are in the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa.)

The four-year process allowed Suh and director Ralph B. Peña to work with actors and designers in an unusually intimate way. The Wong Kids bears the hallmarks of both a devised piece—physical-theatre invention, playful interaction with the audience—and a densely written text chock full of puns, silliness, and sudden stretches of heartfelt emotion.

Peña, who is also Ma-Yi’s artistic director, is still tinkering. This is his first children’s show, but he’s somewhat haunted by the memory of his company’s last attempt at family theatre nearly 15 years ago. “It was a disaster!” he says. “Don’t ask! We didn’t know what we were doing.”

Here, though, Ma-Yi has a partner well versed in youth-oriented work. “Throughout, CTC would come in and give us notes,” Peña says. “They kept saying, ‘Don’t make children’s theatre!’ Meaning, ‘Don’t come “down” to the children.’” [Read more →]

February 5, 2014   No Comments

The “Monkey” and the Chinese Circus

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Inside the acrobatics of Monkey: Journey to the West

Who knew how difficult it was to find performers who can spin plates? That’s what director Chen Shi-Zheng discovered when he traveled to China to find 23 acrobats adept at traditional Chinese circus techniques. It took him half a year to track them down.

“A lot of people have abandoned training in these classic acts,” explains the New York-based director. That’s why he was so intent on incorporating the art form into Monkey: Journey to the West, the opening production for the 2013 Lincoln Center Festival.

“I wanted to give a spotlight on this dying tradition,” Chen says. “I want the people who are practicing, especially young people, to value what they do. In China, it’s very unappreciated.”

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July 10, 2013   No Comments

Meet This Season’s Breakout Actor

Now on Broadway, Cory Michael Smith stars in his third play of the season

Many actors would be lucky to book one high-profile play in a season, but Cory Michael Smith is on his third. He is currently making his Broadway debut as Fred in Breakfast at Tiffany’sat the Cort Theatre. In the fall, he played Elder Thomas in The Whale at Playwrights Horizons. Over the summer, he starred as John in Cock at the Duke on 42nd Street. “This past year I’ve been really fortunate,” Smith says. “A lot of the things that I’ve pursued and been interested in have just kind of lined up magically.”

It wasn’t quite magic, of course. Smith had to work for the parts. He auditioned for Cock, about a man named John who’s torn between his long-time boyfriend and his new girlfriend, after the actor originally cast as John dropped out. Smith was asked to cold-read two-thirds of the play at his final callback.

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March 18, 2013   1 Comment

A Playwright Keeps It “Really Really” Ambiguous

Paul Downs Colaizzo invites arguments at MCC Theater

In Really Really, a wild party leads to a damaging rumor that tests the loyalties and friendships of a group of college friends. The events of that night are never fully spelled out for the audience, and as patrons left a recent production, they had many theories.

No one knows what happened, however, except the playwright, Paul Downs Colaizzo.

“There’s a fine line between ‘unspecific’ and ‘ambiguous,’ and I feel comfortable and certain that if you listen closely, it’s trackable,” he says. “It’s not trackable in the sense that it’s obvious, or that if you sit down with the text you’ll eventually be able to figure it out. But what I know to have happened as the inciting incident of the play is honored throughout the play.”

Really Really is Colaizzo’s New York playwriting debut. “I think ahead a lot in life, and for whatever reason, I really did not think ahead when it came to this career of mine,” he says. “I only really started focusing on writing as a career in 2009. And I had very little information. I really just found out last month how much playwrights make Off Broadway.” (Colaizzo previously worked as an assistant company manager at Xanadu, where he developed a popular web series about the fictional Broadway mogul Cubby Bernstein, and later, he assisted Douglas Carter Beane as an associate writer on Sister Act.)

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February 19, 2013   No Comments

Katie Holmes and company talk “Dead Accounts”

Inside the new Broadway dramedy

The Broadway premiere of a new play is always a major event, but sometimes, it can feel refreshingly modest for the artists involved.

Take Dead Accounts, the new dramedy by Theresa Rebeck that officially opens at the Music Box Theatre tomorrow night. The story of a Cincinnati family that’s trying to keep it together, it features a raft of marquee names. Norbert Leo Butz plays Jack, the son who suddenly arrives from New York with a possibly illegal fortune; Katie Holmes plays his frustrated sister Lorna, who has never managed to leave home; and Judy Greer (13 Going on 30, 27 Dresses) plays his estranged wife Jenny, who turns up in the Midwest for a variety of shady reasons.

But despite all these stars, Dead Accounts is still a one-set, five-character play. Many members of the cast and creative team are happy to work on something so contained.

“Usually, I’m facing either a gigantic army or a big musical,” says director Jack O’Brien, whose Broadway credits include Hairspray, Catch Me if You Can, and Tom Stoppard’s three-play epic The Coast of Utopia. “When you’re working large, you’ve got to come up with a lot of answers fast. You’ve got to hold the center of the room in a way that makes everyone feel they’re being listened to and that they’re going in the right direction, but it’s like herding.”

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November 28, 2012   No Comments