In one of the stories from Immigrant Journey Project, a lively dancing puppet proudly proclaims his aspiration to be a K-pop star. Despite all obstacles, he remains positive, gleefully announcing that “everything is OK at the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”
It’s a spirit of irrepressible optimism that infuses the entirety of this uniquely conceived production. Three years in the making, Mu Performing Arts’ Immigrant Journey Project was created through a collaboration by five community partner organizations, puppet master Masanari Kawahara and dozens of Asian-American immigrants. Over several workshops, participants shared their stories while learning to make and handle puppets. Those narratives were shaped into a play made up of nearly 20 short scenes.
The result is a multilayered experience that ripples with constantly shifting perspectives. One layer is provided by participants as they tell stories in their own languages. In addition, an ensemble of Mu artists — Katie Bradley, Sara Ochs, Eric Sharp and Phasoua Vang — tells some of the stories and provides translation for others. And the puppets themselves act out narratives to a whimsical and often hilarious effect.
Sarah Brandner’s economical set and Mike Wangen’s jewel-toned lighting design provide mood and context as each scene unfolds, accompanied by composer Kyle Legacion’s musical backdrop. Three boxes denote past, present and future while serving as small stages for the puppet action.
In one tale a girl loses her shoe and we watch it sink into a river of blue cloth in a wonderfully inventive piece of stage business. In another scene, one of the boxes is transformed into a school bus through movement and sound effects.
The puppets themselves are marvelously detailed creations. Some sport elaborate costumes and headdresses. Others are fantastical creatures, like a talking bear and a cyclops cat. A few are clearly self-portraits of their Hmong elder puppeteers, creating disconcerting double images.
While some scenes deal directly with trauma — a Hmong elder tells how fields in his village were sprayed with deadly poisons — most dwell on smaller, homelier details of life: a memory of being frightened by a caterpillar, or of a first experience of snow.
Throughout, director Randy Reyes ably balances his large cast, smoothly weaving together actors and nonactors without compromising the authenticity of the community participants’ voices and stories.
It’s an ambitious but appealingly unassuming show that offers a unique perspective through tiny glimpses at the immigrant experience.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.