Devised by Tianding He, Quingan Zhang, Jiaoyang Li, Non Kuramoto, and Michi Zaya
Directed by Tianding He
Produced by CHUANG Stage as part of the 2023 Ice Factory Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 8.5.23
New Ohio Theater, 154 Christopher Street
by Sarah Weber on 8.11.23
The cast and their marine puppets in How I Disappeared.
BOTTOM LINE: A multi-media devised work that explores community, loneliness, and using art to better understand a new home.
Anyone who’s studied any art form has probably heard both of the following: art helps us escape reality for a brief moment, and art holds a mirror up to society. On the surface, these statements seem absolutely contradictory, yet the creative team behind How I Disappeared packs a highly visual and audio-rich sucker punch into the idea that art can only serve one goal at a time.
Upon entering the theater the entire space is covered in plastic orange construction netting; a single white sheet hangs upstage, the only other piece of decor being an unassuming pile of trash. The show’s live sound and composition performer Siyi Chen is stationed on stage with her soundboard, controlling an auditory landscape of distant chatter and wind. To anyone who has ever walked past an abandoned construction site, this opening evokes a familiar scene.
As the lights go down, we hear the comically typical sound of an orchestra tuning, and the pile of trash starts to move, revealing itself to be puppeteer Wilden Weihn covered in New York iconography: an I Love NYC poster, a paper bag from Shake Shack, an empty Amazon envelope, trash and recycling bags, all topped with one of those inflatable Statue of Liberty crowns found in any NYC tourist shop. The whole effect is Lady Liberty meets the Junk Lady from Labyrinth. Then the urban monstrosity speaks—“New York receives its form from what it opposes”—and the show begins.
A part of the Ice Factory Festival, How I Disappeared is a “multimedia object-performance project” that explores what being an artist in New York City means for the Asian devisors and creators behind the piece. With direction by Tianding He, the hour-long performance showcases the multi-disciplinary skills of all involved, including performances by Qingan Zhang, Jiaoyang Li, Non Kuramoto, and Michi Zaya. The artists use a combination of puppetry, poetry, music, and projections to explore the intersections of community and loneliness.
Sometimes, “devised” and experimental works take themselves so seriously that the artists forget to have fun. Thankfully How I Disappeared doesn’t fall for that trap. My favorite part is when the cast takes us on a mockumentary tour through the subway, but the straphangers are various marine life as if we’re in an episode of The Blue Planet. Although our deep-sea friends have serious emotional baggage, such as being too guarded or overly sensitive to criticism, the design of the puppets is so playful and silly you can’t help but laugh. For instance, the puffer fish is simply a Hoberman sphere with eyes and tiny fins, and the whale is a clever construction of zip ties and Ikea bags. I love how the design team doesn't try to disguise the patchwork of materials, such as leaving the Ikea bag handles exposed on the whale, which conveniently adds flow to its movements, or using a doll’s hand as the top of the lighthouse jellyfish so that it can give other cast members “high fives.”
If I had to nit-pick, sometimes Tianding He relies too much on repetition, such as having each marine puppet navigate downstage center to deliver a monologue, that the pacing drags just enough to take the audience out of the spectacle. Overall, though, seeing How I Disappeared at the New Ohio was thoroughly enjoyable, if not bittersweet.
This is the New Ohio’s very last season after thirty years of showcasing independent and local artists, and this weekend’s performances of Ultra Left Violence (also part of the Ice Factory Festival) will be the very last to grace New Ohio’s stage. The New Ohio has been home to some of my favorite plays over the years, including Nina Segal’s Danger Signals and Today Is My Birthday by Susan Soon He Stanton. Any time someone asked for recommendations for new, experimental theater, the New Ohio was always on the top of my list. To say I will miss the space is a wild understatement.
The landscape of downtown and Off Off Broadway theater has changed dramatically since the pandemic, and like the artists in How I Disappeared, it’s easy to feel like we’re re-building our communities from scratch as companies and venues continue to close. Early in the show, Qingan Zhang narrates her journey to find community through a wooden drawing mannequin and a diorama in her suitcase. After traveling from city to city, trying to find the place that feels most like home, she comes to a simple conclusion—“I am my own belonging.”
(How I Disappeared played at the New Ohio Theater, 154 Christopher Street, August 2 through 5, 2023. The running time was 1 hour with no intermission. Performances were Wednesday through Saturday at 7. Tickets were $20 ($17 students and seniors). For more information visit newohiotheatre.org.)
How I Disappeared is devised by Tianding He, Qingan Zhang, Jiaoyang Li, Non Kuramoto, and Michi Zaya. Directed by Tianding He. Puppeteering by Wilden Weihn. Dramaturgy by Yuexing (Star) Sun. Sound Design and Music Direction by John Tsung. Graphic and Scenic Design by Euxuan Ong. Creative Coding by Brian Shin-Hua Ellis. Lighting Design by ShaneHennessy. Live Performance and Additional Sound Design by Siyi Chen. Executive Producer Alison Yueming Qu and CHUANG Stage. Associate Producer is Vivian Yining Cao. StageMmanagement by Mars Juno Bartolome Neri and Ai Toyoshima. Production Assistant is Jonon Gansukh. Producing and Directing Observer is Jessalyn Yang.