The Chinese afterlife has gone all to hell. The Buddhist goddess of mercy, Guan Yin, waits under a sacred mountain to help the dead by taking away the pain and memory of their last life to prepare them for the next. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. In actuality she spends eternity cussing out callers on her help line, feeding off the pain of the dead like a drug fiend, and playing videogames, using Dance Dance Revolution to steer pixelated souls where they need to go.
At least that's how it works in 410[GONE], the new play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig now being given its world premiere by San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater. Or rather, that's how the goddess and her constant companion the Monkey King are used to things working. But their complacency is interrupted by the arrival of a non-digitized mortal soul stumbling into their sanctuary.
Christopher James Cortez is infectiously appealing as a teenager who's under the impression that he's been making his way through a videogame and is totally crushing it. He's not far off. But he doesn't know who he is or how he got here, and the more that's revealed to him of who he actually is, or was, the more his personality changes.
Unbeknownst to him, he's being helped out by his sister, a geeky honors student who keeps meticulously reenacting her brother's last day on earth to try to understand what happened to him. "I will take this mystery and make it my bitch," she says cheerily. Cindy Im gives the girl an endearing optimism that's clearly frayed around the edges by grief as she narrates letters her brother will never receive, and the vulnerability in her portrayal deepens as her relationship with her brother in life becomes clearer.
Director Evren Odcikin's fast-paced staging deftly incorporates the play's heavy technological element; Wesley Cabral's video and Goose Manriquez's animations bring the video game levels to life admirably. Sara Huddleston's sound design combines both oppressively chipper videogame music and traditional Chinese music, and Stephanie Buchner bathes the stage in colored lights to set a variety of otherworldly moods. Dominated by a pyramid-shaped screen with Dance Dance Revolution control pads in front of it, Odcikin's set doesn't look much like the video arcade that the boy describes it as when he arrives, what with a bathtub-turned-bed and a bank of red phones in the foreground, but it's an intriguing setting in any case. Devon LaBelle provides clever props such as a Lonely Planet guide to the Chinese Land of the Dead.
Charisse Loriaux plays the Goddess of Mercy (as she's usually called when she's called anything at all) with enthralling evil-queen hauteur that makes it hilarious when she affects demure girlishness to manipulate the new arrival. Her mystique is marvelously enhanced by her stunning costume by Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, mixing Chinese-opera makeup with thigh-high fetish boots. Madcap trickster characters often walk a fine line between amusing and annoying; this play's Monkey King spends a good deal of time on both sides of that line, with some silly shenanigans that go nowhere and others that work well. Alexander M Lydon plays him with gusto, whether he's licking the boy's earwax to learn his life story or unexpectedly becoming a sober moral conscience. Although essentially a special effect with no spoken lines, Michael Uy Kelly exudes imposing presence as the Ox-Headed God, his red eyes glowing through the darkness in which he's always shrouded.
Funny, dense, and often confusing, Cowhig's script piles on so many clever ideas that some of them get lost in the shuffle and others don't land properly. One baffling running gag is the Chinese American siblings' habit of talking to each other in exaggerated, stereotypical Asian accents like something out of the bad old days of Hollywood. Much of the fun of the play comes from the gods, but it's really the story of the siblings that makes it work and takes it into unexpectedly dark and resonant places. It's the aching humanity under the otherworldly hijinks that makes it all pay off, and ultimately makes you question who the real goddess of mercy in this story is.
410[GONE] runs through June 29, 2013 at Thick House in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit crowdedfire.org.
All photos by Pak Han.