by SOPHIE KERMAN
Sure, saving the universe sounds awesome. Superpowers, space travel, battling aliens… there’s no down side, right? Well, as it turns out for Bruce and Violet Wong, all this superhero stuff is actually kind of stressful.
Just as stressful, in fact, as it is to be an awkward, sci-fi loving middle schooler.
In the world premiere of Lloyd Suh‘s The Wong Kids in The Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!, the experience of being a superhero turns out to be a spot-on metaphor for the tween years. Dealing with a body that doesn’t work the way you want, finding out your powers are actually kind of “lame”, and reconciling yourself to being a little bit different than your friends are all things that every kid (and every universe-saving, telekinetic, rock-moving hero) has to go through in order to find their self-confidence as an adult.
But just because that journey of personal growth is tough doesn’t mean it can’t also be wacky, exciting, and totally awesome. In its intergalactic trek to find and defeat the mysterious Space Chupacabra, The Wong Kids takes its protagonists through a series of adventures and mishaps that are non-stop fun for audiences of all ages. (All ages, that is, above around 8: the Children’s Theater correctly recommends this show for 3rd-graders and above, since younger children will likely be scared by some loud music and lost in Suh’s rich vocabulary, which refuses to stoop to the typical level of “children’s theater” simplicity.)
The production is creative on all levels, from Meredith Ries‘s jungle-gym-inspired set to Shane Rettig‘s contemporary and well-executed sound design. Paul Whitaker‘s lighting has some occasional blinding moments, but is appropriately inter-planetary without looking tacky. The use of puppets (designed by David Valentine) is cute, but not cutesy, and the various extraterrestrial creatures are played by Matthew Gunn Park, Curran Connor, and Ethan Hova with charm and commitment, but never condescension.
And then there are the protagonists, eighth-grader Violet (Sasha Diamond) and her nerdy younger brother Bruce (Alton Alburo). As they reconcile themselves to their new powers – and the possibilities and responsibilities that come with them – their sibling bond develops in ways that are realistic and sweet. Violet, in particular, goes through a serious journey of personal growth when faced with her alter-ego, Nobody (Katie Peters). In a moment of introspection that stands apart from this otherwise action-packed show, Violet’s confrontation with Nobody takes on a gravity that crystallizes it as the play’s psychological core.
When you think of children’s theater, you might be picturing a show for kids that adults will also enjoy. I wouldn’t describe The Wong Kids that way, since as adults, you won’t be stuck fitting your laughs in sideways around the kid stuff. Go on your own, take a date, bring the kids if you’ve got ‘em, it doesn’t matter: if you’ve got a spark of imagination and a continued appreciation for space monsters, this is a zany, playful intergalactic adventure for all.
The Wong Kids in The Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go! Co-Produced with Ma-Yi Theater Company, by Lloyd Suh, directed by Ralph Peña. At the Children’s Theatre Cargill Stage, October 8 – November 17. Recommended for grades 3+. Tickets from $10* – $42 at 612.874.0400 or childrenstheatre.org.