Fil-Am director’s puppet play tackles anti-Asian aggression
NEW YORK — Filipino American theater director, actor and playwright Ralph Peña has created a puppet play that tackles anti-Asian aggression.
To be shown online for free on April 30 (watch trailer here), “Vancouver” deals with the experiences of a mixed-race family that relocates from Japan to the Pacific Northwest hoping to find more stability and acceptance.
The play is presented by Ma-Yi Studios, the streaming and filming studio of Ma-Yi Theater Company, of which Peña is artistic director. Ma-Yi is an award-winning Off-Broadway Asian American theater company that was founded by Fil-Am theater artists.
“’Vancouver’ was a gut-level response to the pandemic and the shuttering of live theater,” says Peña. “We had to find a way to work safely, so I thought of puppets.”
Written and directed by Peña, the play was created in collaboration with puppetry director Tom Lee. Filipino Americans involved in the production include composer Fabian Obispo and director of photography Francisco Aliwalas.
Peña has written plays such as “Flipzoids.” His directing credits include “Felix Starro,” a musical adaptation of Fil-Am writer Lysley Tenorio’s short story, “The Wong Kids,” “Microcrisis,” and “The Chinese Lady,” among others. His work has been seen in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Manila and other cities.
“When Ralph approached me about telling a contemporary Asian American story with puppetry, I leaped at the chance to collaborate with him,” said Lee.
“Throughout the process, we were dealing with the pandemic and also the painful and ongoing reckoning in the country about racism. We saw elected leaders openly espouse racist rhetoric and split the country into us and them.
“‘Vancouver’ is not only about trying to make a beautiful piece of art in challenging times, it is about portraying a story of a mixed-race Asian American family navigating the fraught environment of our country. Telling this story is especially crucial at this moment.”
Puppeteers include Mark Blashford, Tom Lee, and K.T. Shivak along with the vocal talents of Cindy Cheung as Amy, Daniel Isaac as Lucky, Shannon Tyo as Ashley, and James Yaegashi as Hiro.
“Vancouver” was filmed in September 2020 on location in a rustic barn in Wisconsin. The setting provided a controlled environment that allowed all participants to follow strict social distancing and safety guidelines during the creative process.
Shivak handled puppet design and Blair Thomas was the puppetry consultant. The creative team included Alec Styborski (editor), Jaerin Son (lead scenic design), Chicago Puppet Studio (production design), Aaron Herschlag (grip), Eric Roediger (motion graphics), Jesse Jae Hoon (titles), Paul Lieber (sound design) and Three Crown Studios (sound mastering).
While the production is free to view, audiences are encouraged to consider a donation by following directions at the website. “Vancouver” is intended for audiences 13 and older.
The play is presented in association with the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which will also offer a link to the show on its website chicagopuppetfest.org.
Since its founding in 1989, Ma-Yi Theater Company has distinguished itself as one of the country’s leading incubators of new work shaping the national discourse about what it means to be Asian American today.