Seventeen (Christopher James Cortez, center left) and Twenty-One (Cindy Im, center right) confront one another in the afterlife, a domain ruled by the Monkey King (Alexander M Lydon, left) and the Goddess of Mercy (Charisse Loriaux) in Crowded Fire’s world premiere of 410[GONE] at the Thick House. Below: Lydon and Loriaux blend tradition with modernity in the Chinese Land of the Dead. Photos by Pak Han
One of life’s great mysteries has at last been solved. Those outdated notions of the afterlife involving harps and angels and a paternal, white-bearded God never seemed to catch up with our fast-paced, multicultural world – until now. Thanks to Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s mesmerizing and ultimately moving 410[GONE], now having its world premiere courtesy of Crowded Fire Theater, we know that the afterlife, or at least one vision of it, involves deities from Chinese mythology playing Dance Dance Revolution (an high-energy dancing video game) as a means to transmogrify souls from one life form to the next.
Makes perfect sense to me, especially in Cowhig’s no-nonsense vision, where Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy (Charisse Loriaux) is so weary she’s lost all sense of mercy and her patience is constantly tested by her screeching companion, Monkey King (Alexander M Lydon). Life in the Chinese Land of the Dead ain’t what it used to be, even though the old traditions have been updated to include video games. The telephone contact with desperate humans in the outside world, however, are still old-school push-button land lines.
The digital revolution is also messing up what should be a simple transmogrification. A 17-year-old boy (Christopher James Cortez) should slip through the system, but his older sister (Cindy Im) can’t let him go. Using the power of her laptop, a disposable Chinese shrine and her brother’s old detective kit, she is intent on unraveling the mystery of her brother’s untimely death. In so doing, she finds ways (as if she were playing a video game) to send him things he might need in the underworld (like money and pickles).
With the help of the stunning but sparingly used Ox-Headed God (Michael Uy Kelly making the absolute most of his brief time on stage), sister and brother are reunited – briefly – in the afterlife, and that’s where the non-digital, non-wacky heart of 410[GONE] really lies.
Director Evren Odcikin (who also designed the set) nicely balances the groovily updated folklore aspects of the play with the very real human elements of loss, grief, mental illness and cultural identification. This is a smart, funny play that, for all its edgy games, turns out to be a modern riff on Orpheus and Eurydice in which coming to terms with loss and trying to understand death turn it into a much more conventional (but no less moving) drama.
Im and Cortez are superb as a brother and sister whose relationship is fraught with tension and deep devotion. From the beginning, Im serves as our emotional entry point as a sister who is not exactly in denial over her brother’s death but she certainly is obsessing over it, to the point where she keeps eating his final meal every day. When she’s finally able to break through into her brother’s limbo, Im is even better, and Cortez, who is such a believably tormented, video game-obsessed teenager, connects with her in a remarkably poignant way. Their final scenes together are completely free of sappy sentiment and full of love and loss in equal measure.
Though an intimate production in the cozy confines of the Thick House stage, Odcikin’s production benefits greatly from superb video design by Wesley Cabral and animation by Goose Manriquez. As fun as the projections are – and they can also be beautiful, as when the dead brother goes through otherworldly transitions – they never overwhelm the performers. The playwright leaves that to the emotions.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 410[GONE] continues through June 29 in a Crowded Fire Theatre production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit www.crowdefire.org.