Not much lift
by Richard Dodds
A stuck elevator is easily grasped imagery. As a metaphor, it evokes paralysis. As a plausible daily reality for millions, it may provoke phobia. As a theatrical conceit, it poses obvious challenges that the new musical Stuck Elevator meets in halting fashion.
Developed in a serious of prestigious musical-theater workshops, this unconventional piece found an important patron in ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff, who chose it as part of her theater's mainstage season. New works by unfamiliar authors are risky business in the theater, and you can't help but admire the choice and the resources provided to mount it. But those resources do not provide the lift that might counter the deficiencies in the material itself.
There are ways in which director Chay Yew's imaginative, uneven production might better confront, or distract from, the challenges, but it's possible that no amount of prowess could find vibrant life in what composer Byron Au Yong and librettist Aaron Jefferis have extracted from a real-life incident: A Chinese restaurant deliveryman, in the U.S. illegally, is trapped in a high-rise elevator, and fears that pushing the "help" button could lead to his deportation. Nothing to do, nothing to play with but his mind.
Guang, the man in a tight space, would appear to have limited theatrical possibilities, but once you allow that the significant figures who populate his increasingly fevered imagination can come to life onstage, the doors are opened. His thoughts often focus on his wife and son back in China, and these longings give way to paranoid conjecture and imagined confrontations. His mind goes darker with replicated scenes of an earlier mugging, drawing no sympathy from his all-business boss, and worse is his encounter with Snakehead, the human smuggler owed $60,000 for passage in a shipping container to the United States.
Au Yong's music and Aaron Jefferis' lyrics begin with guileless simplicity as the unassuming Guang bicycles his way to a Bronx apartment to make a dinner delivery. He has gleefully picked up some American slang providing at least an inkling of belonging. "Thank you, the Bronx, you the bomb," he sings before entering the recalcitrant elevator. His early monologues – most of the show is sung through – are in Chinese, with English translations projected above the stage. But the convention soon flips, as Guang's Chinese is rendered in English, while the translations are now projected in Chinese.
English proficiency is no longer an issue in Guang's speech, and even assuming modest skills of expression in his native language, he comes across as bilaterally simple. As hunger grips after two days in the elevator, his sings variations on "Belly, belly, bellyache." Jefferis' words are set to music that, when not puttering along in recitative, takes occasional pokes into atonal, dissonant, and hip-hop territory. Melodies are not a priority.
Director Yew and his collaborators have further worked to open up the action with elaborate fantasy sequences, but they lack a polish, or at least comic fervency, that would help make them matter. A brief reverie of a visit to Atlantic City is rendered in glittery-costumed actors going through makeshift dance moves. A clever stroke is having the demonic elevator come to life as an armored warrior (looking a bit like a diesel locomotive from Starlight Express), but its clash with Guang isn't bracingly realized. A touch of whimsy comes in the Fortune Cookie Monster, and even Guang's bladder has its own character.
As Guang, Julius Ahn brings meek likability and an opera-trained voice that doesn't need to roam far in the limited dynamics of the score. Raymond J. Lee, Marie-France Arcilla, Joel Perez, and Joseph Anthony Foronda play multiple roles, human and otherwise, who pass through Guang's 81 hours in a pokey provided by the Otis Elevator Company.
The production component that best provides the material with polished authority is set designer Daniel Ostling's framework for an elevator, with a functionality used both for dramatic effect and staging embellishments. The lighting, sound, and projections by, respectively, Myung Hee Cho, Alexander V. Nichols, and Mikhail Fiksel bring further polish to a show that, in its heart, seems leery of polish. This is an elevator built for a low-load capacity.
Stuck Elevator will run at ACT through April 28. Tickets $20-$85. Call 749-2228 or go to www.act-sf.org.