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“It’s a show about nothing.”
— George Costanza, Seinfeld
*I saw Stuck Elevator on Saturday – 6 April 2013.
If you’ve read my blog before, I subscribe to the philosophy that there are no “good” or “bad” stories, just “good” and “bad” ways of telling them. The most mundane of activities can be told in a fashion that puts one on the edge of their seat, just as some of the most important moments in history can be told in a way that puts an audience to sleep. It’s what separates a gripping story like The Social Network (because what could be more dull than people typing on computers?) from a banal one like Michael Mann’s Ali (as Spike Lee once said to me: “How could you make such a boring movie about one of the most exciting men in history?”).
The story of Ming Kuang Chen could make for compelling drama: an illegal Chinese immigrant is stuck in an elevator for 81 hours as his family worries that he’s been killed by criminals. Do a little research on the story; it’s a compelling read that will scare the hell out of you.
The American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) didn’t tell a compelling version of the story. They didn’t even tell an entertaining version of the story. In fact, I’m not quite sure what the hell they were doing for the 81 minute performance time of Stuck Elevator, but it’s not making good theatre – of that much I am sure.
Yes, the play runs 81 minutes with no intermission, one for each hour our protagonist is stuck in an elevator with no means of escape. During this time, he does what most of us would do: he panics, he remembers, he hallucinates. All of this is presented in the form of a frequently banal, occasionally manic musical narrative that – amongst its many problems – is saddled with the worst thing a musical can have: forgettable songs.
Guāng (Julius Ahn) is used to not being noticed. He’s a delivery man; his job is to get from Point A to Point B as quick as possible. What’s more, he’s an illegal immigrant, so the less attention he draws to himself, the better.
Even so, not even he thought he would be so forgotten as to be stuck in an elevator after a delivery.
Through a series of surreal hallucinations and light songs, he imagines who might be looking for him, what his family would do without him, and what would happen to his bladder if he doesn’t get out soon.
As a Black man, let me say that I applaud the efforts of a large, mainstream theatre to use their resources to bring the story of a people of colour to the masses. That they did so with people of colour (director Chay Yew, composer Byron Au Yong) is all the more commendable. Indeed, the performances are best thing of the play. The musical is performed in both English and Chinese (I don’t know if it’s Cantonese or Mandarin) with alternating supertitles showing the opposite of whichever is spoken.
The performances are also commendable. Julius Ahn gives the perfect balance of anxiety and vocal pitch as Guāng. Even as the character begins to see the most unbelievable visions, Ahn’s performance is grounded and realistic, allowing the audience to connect with him. So too is Marie-France Arcilla a powerful voice and welcome presence as, amongst many characters, Guāng’s wife Ming. Every member of the cast is effective.
Which is what makes it all the more disappointing that they weren’t given better material with which to work. The score by Byron Au Yong was actually decent, if not particularly memorable. I remember thinking “I’d like to have this music on in the background while I work,” but I couldn’t imagine giving it my full attention. Nor do Aaron Jafferis’ lyrics leave anything to be desired. The soundtrack goes from traditional Chinese strings to NY hip-hop at the drop of a hat, but doesn’t seem particularly skilled at either. (I saw the production during its 6 April preview, which combined songs and spoken dialogue. A friend who attended an earlier preview reported that said preview had no dialogue.)
And then of course there’s the story, or rather, the lack thereof. Stuck Elevator is a fine example of creative minds deciding to throw several ideas at a wall to see what stick, but just wind up making a mess. If they wanted a character study rather than a proper plot, that could have been intriguing. But they don’t seem to know how to make any interesting characters to begin with. And when the audience is meant to be “stuck” along with the protagonist, he should at least be sympathetic. Yes, Guāng is stuck, so he hallucinates. He sees images of his fellow delivery colleague, his wife and son, and his employer. Unfortunately, they all appear as ciphers and have no lasting emotional impact. At one point we are given a representation of his increasingly unstable bladder by having the other characters mock him until he wets himself. Like most of the scenes, it seems apropos of nothing and has no apparent consistency in the representation of the characters.
Most bewildering of all is a dream sequence featuring a professional wrestling match featuring an anthropomorphic fortune cookie (which, to be honest, looked like a mask representing female anatomy) and the elevator. Yes, the elevator itself is represented as a character. Said character looks like a cross between The Terminator and The Predator. It can often be a cliché for dream sequences to be over-expository and convenient for the sake of the audience. One will have no such worry for this sequence in Stuck Elevator, which ends just as quickly and inexplicably as it began.
Such episodic montages are par for the course. Most frustrating of all are the endings, both false and real. One false ending has Guāng inexplicably returning home to the cold shoulders of his family and colleagues. The other has him suddenly astride his bicycle as he ascends against a celestial backdrop (whether or not he was meant to be dead in this sequence is unclear). The proper ending simply has him walking out of the elevator. That’s it. No grand fanfare, no explanation, no known repercussion for anything or anyone; he just walks out.
Before Stuck Elevator, the last ACT production I saw was their ill-conceived 2010 staging of Phédre. Needless to say, my track record of their productions might not be prolific, but this production has not improved it. The only thing one can say to the production’s credit is that if their intention was for the audience to feel as if they were stuck in a confined spaced with no known means of escape, then they succeeded.