A.C.T.’s “Stuck Elevator,” a new musical-theatre-opera hybrid that will make you want to take the stairs, through April 28, 2013
If you’ve ever been stuck in an elevator, the memory never leaves you. In 2005, a 35 year-old Chinese-food deliveryman, Ming Kuang Chen, an immigrant from Fujian province who owed over $60,000 to human traffickers, was trapped in an elevator for 81 hours. Just after he had dropped off a $15 delivery, his elevator, an express lift, stalled out between the fourth and third floors of a 38 floor Bronx high-rise. Talk about being “boxed in”—despite a complete lack of food and water, he was terrified to push the emergency alarm because he was an undocumented immigrant and feared the consequences of being found by authorities even more. His 81 hour ordeal is the basis of Stuck Elevator, a gripping 81 minute musical hybrid by composer Byron Au Yong and librettist, playwright and hip hop poet Aaron Jafferis, which has its world premiere at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theater). Obie Award winner director, Chay Yew (currently artistic director of Victory Gardens Theatre), transforms Chen’s traumatic ordeal into a mesmerizing musical of solo and ensemble performances. Ranging from opera to energizing doses of hip-hop, the music richly captures his physical and mental collapse as well as the symbolic journey of the displaced immigrant in our society. The songs, all sung in English, have Chinese supertitles and address his memories of his wife and son in China as well as his isolation and stress as an expendable worker in the U.S., omnipresent in our society yet virtually invisible as an individual. Stuck Elevator runs through April 28, 2013.
Young and Jafferis’s story opens with Chinese food delivery man, Guāng (光), standing at the elevator door, celebrating his good fortune at having made a $15 delivery which yielded a generous tip. He leveraged everything he had just to get to the States and all he earns isn’t enough to make even a small dent in what he owes to Snake Man, his trafficker—$60,000.
Julius Ahn delivers a thoroughly engrossing Guāng, a gentle, seemingly honest and hardworking delivery man who, through no fault of his own, was trapped long before he got stuck in the elevator. His predicament is better than it was in China but as an undocumented worker who doesn’t speak English, he’s living the dark side of the American dream, where the climb up is precarious. His dreams to bring his wife and son to the States are fanned by frequent phone calls to them in China where he sugar coats the reality of his situation. Remarkably, Stuck Elevator opened the very day (April 16th) that our Senate’s “Gang of Eight” revealed a much-anticipated (estimated 1,500 page) comprehensive immigration reform package whose main provision creates a quick path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
Ahn/Guāng carries the show—he’s the only actor who never leaves the stage. The rest—Marie-France Arcilla, Raymond J. Lee, Joseph Anthony Foronda and Joel Perez—take on multiple roles playing Guang’s family and close associates. Ahn, a classically trained operatic tenor (Madame Butterfly at Nashville Opera; Turandot at Seattle Opera), delivers solos in a range of styles seamlessly. He also performs evocative ballads with Marie-France Arcilla (wife Míng) that convey the genuine love the couple share.
Overall, Stuck Elevator has the energy and feel of a musical you’d see on Broadway and is a perfect example of the musical theatre hybrid that opera houses and theatre companies alike are experimenting with. (San Francisco Opera has engaged Francesca Zambello to direct a grand scale production of Show Boat as part of its 2014 fall season.) Complementing the singing is A.C.T.’s highly creative use of its space—singers perform from the balcony and even come down the aisles, making the songs even more engaging. At one point when Guāng and Míng exchange letters, they launch paper airplanes across the stage and out into the audience, a simple but clever representation of air mail.
Daniel Ostling’s stark set is in perfect tune with the drab misery of Guāng’s life. The elevator is a steel open frame box that, in an instant, becomes his cage. It rises up and down on steel posts but most of the movement in this production is mental—the personalities and demons Guāng conjures as he passes time waiting to be found.
Kate Freer’s enormous video projections are visible through the elevator’s open walls, illustrating the eerie but rich dialogue between Guāng and his inner demons. One thing that fascinates about these painterly projections, reminiscent of the early work of pioneering video artist Tony Oursler, is the way in which they awaken emotions. A particularly compelling projection is a blown up portrait of Guāng’s face which dominates the background as he writhes powerless on the elevator’s floor, compelling us to really see him as an individual. And that is the journey of this production, coming to a place where we can relate to Guāng’s plight.
Later, when Guāng melts down and his demons actually come to life, things start to get too busy. When he, in a state of hallucination, does actual battle with a silvery alien robot, or a giant fortune cookie appears urging him to pull a fortune out of her head, the production leers off course to the farcical or absurd, distracting from his very real and poignant emotional journey. If there’s a weak link in this production this is it—it goes too far.
While the story is set in the U.S., the writers missed the opportunity to give a overview of the enormity of the global problem—rapid modernization is almost always at the expense of the work force. Chinese workers, particularly migrant workers, lead lives of extraordinary hardship to offer their children a way out of poverty and are often confronted with a series of choices that all lead to undesirable outcomes, hence the urgency to get to America. Once here, of course, the reality is often far from the dream. Guāng again becomes a nameless cog in a wheel, toiling day and night to chaise an elusive dream that, more often than naught, includes more hazards than rewards. The elevator is indeed “stuck.”
CAST: Julius Ahn (Madame Butterfly at Nashville Opera; Turandot at Seattle Opera) as Guāng. The following actors play multiple roles, with their main rle listed—Raymond J. Lee (Anything Goes and Mamma Mia! on Broadway) as Wáng Yuè (王越), Guāng’s 8-year-old son; Marie-France Arcilla (Working at Off-Broadways’ 59E59 Theaters; Sondheim on Sondheim at the Cleveland Playhouse) as Míng (明), Guāng’s wife; Joel Perez (In the Heights , 1st national tour; Fun Home at the Public Theater) as Marco, the wisecracking Mexican deliveryman; and Joseph Anthony Foronda (Pacific Overtures and Miss Saigon on Broadway) as Zhōng Yi (忠佚), Guāng’s brother-in-law.
CREATIVE TEAM: scenic designer Daniel Ostling (Endgame and Play and Once in a Lifetime at A.C.T.; Clybourne Park on Broadway); costume designer Myung Hee Cho (Lackawanna Blues at A.C.T.; Emotional Creature at Berkeley Rep); lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols (Endgame and Play at A.C.T.; Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway and Wishful Drinking on Broadway); video designer Kate Freer (Bullet for Adolph at New World Stages; P.S. Jones and the Frozen City); and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel (Black n Blue Boys at Berkeley Rep; In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) at St. Louis Repertory).
InterACT Programming for Stuck Elevator: InterACT events are presented free of charge to give patrons a chance to get closer to the action while making a whole night out of their evening at the theatre.
Audience Exchanges: Sunday, April 21, at 2 p.m. | Wednesday Apr. 24, at 2 p.m. Sunday, Learn firsthand what goes into the making of great theatre. After the show, join A.C.T. on stage for a lively onstage chat with the cast, designers and artists who develop the work onstage.
Wine Series: Tuesday, April 23, at 7 p.m. Raise a glass at this wine-tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local wineries.
PlayTime: Saturday, April 27, 12:30 p.m. Before this matiness performance, get hands on with theatre and the artists who make it happens at the interactive preshow workshop.
Details: Stuck Elevator runs through April 28, 2013 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. most Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $90, phone 415.749.2228 or visit www.act-sf.org
Up Next at A.C.T. — National Theatre of Scotland’s internationally acclaimed production of Black Watch makes its highly anticipated Bay Area premiere May 9, 2013 at The Drill Court at the Armory Community Center, located in San Francisco’s Mission District, a space used as a National Guard facility from 1914 until 1976. Based on interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq in Scotland’s 300-year-old Black Watch regiment, this powerful depiction of war splices together choreographed marches and Scottish ballads with searing video news footage, capturing war from the perspective of those on the ground—what it really means to be part of the war on terror and what it means to make the journey home again. Through June 9, 2103.
A.C.T. wraps its 2012-13 season with a new production of Tom Stoppard’s rich comedy Arcadia. In pursuit of a major literary sensation, two obsessive modern-day scholars piece together the volatile and passionate events that took place centuries earlier. This enchanting story moves between the 19th century and the present through a series of love stories. Characters from both eras discover connections, unearth mysteries and unravel hidden truths. May 16 – June 9, 2013.
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