Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Angst in an Elevator

"Stuck Elevator" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru June 29

“So there’s this Chinese guy, an illegal alien.”
            “Works for a Chinese restaurant in the Big Apple. Rides his bike delivering take-out.”
            “Yeah, so?”
            “And he’s making this delivery and he gets stuck in an elevator.”
            “Okay. So why are you telling me this? What’s the punch line?”
            “Well, it’s a musical.”
            “I don’t get it.”
            “Nothing to get – it’s a musical called ‘Stuck Elevator.’”
            “About a Chinese delivery guy who gets stuck in an elevator?”
            “That’s it?”
            “Well, not really.”
            “Chinese guy stuck in an elevator…and he sings?”
            “You’re kidding, right?”

And neither is this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas which, in association with Long Wharf Theatre, is staging “Stuck Elevator,” which runs through June 29 at Long Wharf’s Stage II. The musical, with music by Byron Au Yong and libretto by Aaron Jafferis, is staged with an engaging simplicity, with a set that consists of a metal frame standing in for the elevator and, as props, three bicycles and a rolling cart that sets up the restaurant scenes.

Yet, during the ninety or so minutes of the show, “Stuck Elevator” deals not only with immigration issues but familial ties, the loneliness of the immigrant adrift in an alien culture, the dreams we all have about bettering ourselves, and the fears that we might be condemned to live a life that is, at best, beside the point, an invisible-man existence in a world that refuses to acknowledge our humanity or hear our whimpers, wails and screams.

The elevator, as my play-going partner pointed out, is a metaphor for the life that Guang (Julius Ahn) finds himself in as he labors to pay off the substantial debt he owes to those who transported him and his nephew illegally to America in the hold of a cargo ship – said nephew dying in transit. From the moment Ahn appears on-stage you sense that his character is man weighed down by crushing burdens, a man trapped, unable to break free from the financial and emotional ties that bind him.

As Guang waits for someone (hopefully a repairman – not a policeman!) to come and release him, he fantasizes about his life in America and the family he left behind in China. As he does, the musical opens up to give us scenes at the Chinese restaurant that Guang works for, ruled by a harridan, the owner’s wife, played by Francis Jue (who punctuates dialogue with insistent knife-chopping of helpless vegetables), as well as heart-felt moments as his wife, Ming (the lovely Marie-Francis Arcilla) and his son Wanh Yue (Raymond Lee) yearn to be reunited with him, and his worries that his co-worker Marco (a tremendously engaging Joel Perez) is getting all of his tips while he is stuck in the elevator.

But there’s more, for this cast of four take on many roles. Arcilla is not only Guang’s wife, she is part of a chorus (along with the other actors) that worries Guang about his bladder (he is, after all, stuck in an elevator – for several days), as well as a waitress, a fortune-cookie monster (don’t ask—just go and see) and an Atlantic City chorus girl. There are muggers, a rapper, and an “Otis” (inventor of the elevator) mechanical monster, a cynical INS agent, security guards – once immigrants themselves, now heartless persecutors of those who seek to find what they have gained: a rung on the ladder of respectability and acceptance – and the family left behind, an extended family all yearning to come to America whose possible transit falls on Guang’s shoulders, a nagging burden brought to life in a scene where chopsticks are used as emotional daggers that draw emotional blood as Guang tries to meet his commitments and yet exist, somehow, as a man.

I’m not giving anything away to report that Guang eventually escapes the elevator, but it is a bittersweet release, for as he trudges off stage you sense he carries with him all of the burdens he brought onto the stage at the start of the show…and yet, there is a staged moment near the end of the musical where he is bicycling down imaginary streets and there is hope in his eyes, a hope that may be eventually crushed, yet it is there all the same, a hope engendered by the human spirit, a spirit that, consigned to a pit, always looks up and sees the moon.

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