The idea that the story of a take-out Chinese delivery man trapped in an elevator in Brooklyn for 81 hours could be the basis of a play may not seem too big a stretch, but the basis of a quasi-operatic musical? Stuck Elevator—music by Byron Au Yong, libretto by Aaron Jafferis, directed by Chay Yew—is an inventive, amusing, affecting, and thoughtful show that takes us into a slice of life few of us may have first-hand knowledge of, but that anyone can enter imaginatively. Certainly, anyone would be interested in how someone would cope with such a situation, but what Stuck Elevator dramatizes is the entire context that would keep a man from summoning emergency help from the authorities, and that context, of course, is immigration issues in the U.S. Guang (Julius Ahn) speaks little English and is an illegal alien and knows that a police rescue would involve a pro forma request for an ID he doesn’t have.
Once we know that, we find there’s much more to learn—about his wife Míng (Marie-France Arcilla) and son, Wáng Yuè (Raymond Lee) back home, about his exploitative boss’s wife, about the chiding of his co-worker Marco (Joel Perez), about his fears—including the threat of pissing his pants after hours become days with no rescue—and even an elaborate fantasy involving a Pro Wrestling confrontation between Guang as Delivery Man vs. Elevator Monster (Francis Jue). And all this is presented in musical numbers that let us enter easily into the spirit of Guang’s trials and show us, in quick strokes, the characters who people his world.
The musical settings are many and varied and nothing stays too long to wear out its welcome. There are Guang’s melancholic “is this the end?” ruminations, charming turns from his family, fast-speed raps from Marco (very entertaining), and a host of threatening characters, including a mugger, guards, an agent of Homeland Security, and Snakehead (Lee), to whom Guang owes money. Jafferis’ libretto ranges through a battery of injuries added to the insult of being trapped in an elevator while also being trapped in the “no exit” space of an illegal alien. It’s to the show’s credit that its themes all arise naturally as the fever dreams of a man trapped with no means of communication with the outside world—Guang sold his cellphone to Marco. Feelings of guilt and shame surface as Guang finds he has no means to help himself and no one else he can turn to.
While it may sound like a somewhat polemical play, Chay Yew’s direction accentuates entertainment and the show’s actors/singers are all skilled with a comic touch—particularly Perez and Jue, whose parts in the ensemble tend toward comic relief. To Ahn, Arcilla and Lee fall the more affecting scenes, including the latter’s role of a nephew who died en route to America, smuggled in a cargo hold, and one of the more lifelike aspects of the play is the variety of turns Arcilla undergoes as Guang’s wife, a figure loved, feared, pitied and pined for.
At the heart of it all is Ahn’s Guang as a man able to burst into song about orange beef, hot sauce, and every aspect of his stranded anxieties, in a rich tenor. He is depicted as a man of resources, but simple in spirit, driven by the need to make money as quickly as possible for the sake of his family.
Stuck Elevator boasts a stripped-down, elegant set and lighting, and colorful and engaging costumes. It’s ready to go on tour (this is its second staging after a premiere in San Francisco) and it would be interesting to see how the show plays in parts of the country remote from big cities like NYC and SF, where the kind of subcultural associations that are simply givens of the situation might be a little opaque. And of course the show should be seen across the country as the question of immigrant rights and struggles are part of the social fabric at present. The show does a service in dramatizing a true story in terms that ring true as a look at the cartoon that is our contemporary, multicultural world.
International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Stuck Elevator Presented in association with Long Wharf Theatre
Music: Byron Au Yong Libretto: Aaron Jafferis Director: Chay Yew
Cast: Julius Ahn, Marie-France Arcilla, Francis Jue, Raymond Lee, Joel Perez
Musicians: Byron Au Yong, piano; Lee Caron, percussion; Shenghua Hu, violin; Frederick Alden Terry, cello
Daniel Ostling, Scenic Designer; Mikhail Fiksel, Sound Designer; Myung Hee Cho, Costume Designer; Frederick Alden Terry, Music Director; Ted Boyce-Smith, Associate Lighting Designer; Alexandra Friedman, Associate Scenic Designer; Naya Chang, Assistant Director; Philip Rudy, Production Stage Manager; Victoria Nidweski, Assistant Stage Manager
Producers: ArKtype / Thomas O. Kriegsmann Associate Producer: Alexandra Rosenberg
June 20-22, 25-29, 8pm June 22-23, 26, 29, 2pm Long Wharf Theatre, Stage II