When I went to see Made In China at Bindlestiff Studios on this past Friday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A debut musical from PianoFight friend, Nicky Weinbach, co-produced by two PF company members, DL Soares and Clinton Winder. I went, desiring to support my friends, not wanting to set my expectations too high. This is a debut. This is a musical. A certain combination that leaves a lot of room for error.
What I knew, I had heard from DL (who I also happen to work with). There was a flying door. Hannah Barnard-Henke, who designed the set for FORKING! this past December, was continuing to hone her skills as a set designer and general badass. Clint was running tech. There was a live orchestra. Nicky was starring in a role he had written and produced, in a highly personal musical about his own fears of growing into an adult.
My thoughts on the night of the performance, I was floored by the simultaneous fullness and emptiness of the world that had been created. The characters were so simple, yet a tension held me to my seat. I had to ask Nicky afterwards how aware he was of the weirdness. It is a weird play. He knew it. He wanted it that way. A way to look at himself, stand figuratively naked in front of an audience, with a story that hit so close to home for him I could swear I watched him hold back tears that were his more his own than his character’s, though the fact that he is nearly playing himself keeps me guessing even now.
Made in China is written in a voice as foreign as it is pure. The story juxtaposes the seemingly predictable with the eeriness of a Twilight Zone episode. The boy who doesn’t want to grow up. Who is so far afraid that he will invent a world, a life, a thought process that is not like any other I’ve seen. “I had my first kiss at 23,” Nicky readily admits. This late-blooming experience strikes so relevant for our current generation of post-apocolyptic Peter Pans. The extended age of living at home with parents. The lack of knowledge of what to do with ourselves in a recession that is hovering around it’s sixth year. The tech geeks on college extended, using a skateboard to move around futuristic open offices, the cafeterias full of gourmet food that allow them to never have to cook themselves a meal. The sort of socially structured culture that says “You’ll live to be 100, 30 is the new 18, we’ll set you free when we are good and ready, now please remove your belt and shoes and let us show you the way.”
The musical is full of delightful moments, not the least of which is watching Nicky’s twin brother/the show’s conductor, Max, scamper from the orchestra stand to double his brother and add a new twist in the darker-toned second act. The questions it raises become more complex, as does the metaphor, music and movement.
What does it mean to become an adult? To kill your darlings and leave a childhood behind? In a world of suburban sprawl and tech campuses that resemble each other in their ready-made appeal. An admitted late-bloomer. Are we all? Slipping from the slopes where we began, I smiled as I observed the split in the audience. People unsure of what to think. “Is it ok to laugh?” “Am I laughing at Nicky?” “Is he even acting?” This is so real. So real that it could make you uncomfortable. Until you let yourself laugh, live with the character who may just resemble more than one person you know, and maybe, just maybe, resonates in a little ticking clock inside yourself. A clock with no time, no hands, no movement. The little voice that begs and screams not to be silenced with reason and self-doubt, that child’s voice that has been taped shut and taken over and conquered.
What we see in Made in China is the reluctant conquering of that child’s voice. Figuratively and metaphorically. The taming of the playwright, the main character, the world around him and us and we and ours. The play itself is overall well-done and well-sung, the production value is quite high, especially considering that funding has come mostly out of pocket (you can donate to the (also late-blooming) kickstarter here). This is a startlingly un-clever sophisticated elementary autobiographical tale. It is charming and laughable, once one allows themselves to be on the same page, to be in on the joke, it allows us to see a naked and naive truth, and is, in fact, heartwarming like the early 60s. “I wanted the opportunity to laugh at myself,” says Weinbach, “all of these idiosyncrasies I have, not least of all, the fear of leaving (my) childhood innocence behind.” And the end result? It is brave and smart and weird and fun. Idiosyncratic in it’s relevant metaphor, “I won’t grow up!” with a hyper-conscious thread – a tale of delayed adolescence and the fearlessness to pursue a goal in gloriously absurd suspense. Not knowing where or if or when an innocence will be allowed to die, and all of it, wrapped in an up-and-coming postman’s package, neatly taped and addressed to the music box that it holds inside it’s own cardboard shell. We are left holding that music box, broken and plastic and pure, Made in China.