A young Chinese-American woman identified in the playbill as “Twenty-one” but named Jamie (Linda Bard) is attempting to use her MacBook to contact her dead younger brother through a video chat app. Meanwhile, in the realm under Tai Shan, a mountain in Shadong Province revered by Buddhists and Taoists alike, Sun Wu Kong, The Monkey King (Jacob Yeh), the powerful yet silly protagonist of the sixteenth century epic Journey to the West, is answering the phones for Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Mercy (Yasmin Tuazon), identified with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, has become exasperated by millennia spent addressing human suffering, and has become exhausted dancing through mortals’ steps in a Dance Dance Revolution-like game.
“410 Gone” is an error message that appears in one’s browser when the web page one is seeking has permanently disappeared. Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 410[Gone] is a post-modern comedy about overcoming survivor’s guilt. The play traverses the Chinese Land of the Dead, the digital worlds of video games, and family tragedy in the internet age.
In this production, directed by Gregory Keng Strasser (making his debut on the D.C. theater scene with Rorschach Theatre), the three realms are demarcated in a simple yet clever staging by Set Designer Debra Kim Sivigny and Scenic Artist Kelley Rowan – the Land of the Living is an upper tier inhabited only by Jamie; the Land of the Dead is a lower tier with a central thrust. An elevated platform on stage right, where Ox-Head, Niu Tou, a guardian of the underworld (in a silent, masked performance by Andrew Quilpa) tends his shrine, bridges the two realms. A third realm, the digital realm, is represented by video chat and video game projections (designed by Kylos Brannon), and colorful two-dimensional pixilated props by Rachael Knoblauch that evoke the graphics 16-bit gaming.
Entering the Land of the Dead is Patrick (Sebastian Amoruso), identified as “Seventeen,” who, much to the surprise of Mercy and Monkey King, has arrived without being digitized and pixilated. His tastebuds rejected the Soup of Forgetfulness offered him by Ox-Head after only a spoonful, so he retains his name and the video gaming skills that allow him to overcome obstacles (the Chinese Underworld is said to have 1800 levels). But most importantly, as a suicide, his big sister is still in denial, alternately making offerings of “hell money” and pickles, while simultaneously imagining that she can bring him back, if she can hit upon the correct rite or numerical sequence.
In Buddhist visual imagery, portrayals of venerated figures like deities, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, whether through their gestures, actions, or the equipment they hold, provide guidance to the adherent on the mental states and behavior that allows for an overcoming of suffering. Likewise, the avatars that players guide through levels of a video game have a specific repertoire of actions that allow them to advance. Whether in play or meditation these realms have always been connected in the human mind to the everyday world. It is no surprise that Patrick’s repeated suicide attempts made use of implements – belts, razors, bathtubs – designed for benign purposes; he has “hacked the game” of everyday objects to bloody effect.
In Cowhig’s imagination (she wrote the play after the suicide of her own brother) it is Mercy, who as a Bodhisattva has chosen to shoulder the burden of human suffering, who has been overwhelmed to a point of callousness. Jamie has been in denial of her own grief, both in her belief that Patrick can be brought back and in attempts to forget that her brother had been consumed by depression – wishing she could remember him like the whimsical Monkey King, much as Monkey King wishes Mercy was like her old self. But Jamie cannot forget.
Even as technology advances and families migrate from one continent to another, mortals demand some unchanging constancy from the immortals. However, Cowhig proposes that this constancy of the immortals, and humans frequent inability to get past guilt, grief, and trauma, are two sides of the same coin. The Lands of the Living and of the Dead, like a video game, are caught in a compulsive cycle.
Yeh has the playful agility, plastic face, and lack of inhibition needed for a character like the Monkey King – whether it’s when he probes Patrick’s biography by sampling the teenager’s earwax (as monkeys are wont to do), or when he transforms himself into a throne for the Goddess as she reluctantly takes calls from the mortal realm. Tuazon brings an over-the-top jaded irony to Guan Yin – her feelings of futility evident whether she is sinking into a bathtub, or angrily stomping through the paces of Dance Dance Revolution. Quilpa’s Ox-Head evokes laughter even with a wonderfully minimalist performance.
The human characters take a longer time to unfold. Amoruso’s journey through the Land of the Dead has him going from braggadocious teenage gamer to having to face both his deep clinical depression and realization that there may have been joys he abandoned when he took his life. Bard has the toughest role as the surviving sibling, as she spends much of the play monologuing in her brother’s closet, but the reunion between siblings reaches a comic highlight with a sequence that is both a parody of theatrical “yellow-face” and of the idealized manner in which previous generations of their family venerated sibling loyalty.
Choreographer Sarah Taurchini and Fight Director Casey Kaleba create effective stagings of Dance Dance Revolution and Mortal Kombat-like gameplay that work well with Brannon’s projection design and should please the gamers in the house. Costume Designer Rhe’a Roland opts for a simple wardrobe that defines both humans and immortals with an effective visual shorthand – whether Ox-Head’s mask, Mercy’s red-sashed white gown, Monkey King’s tail, crown, and simple makeup, Patrick’s gamer-gear complete with an “I Paused My Game To Be Here. You’re Welcome” t-shirt, or Jamie’s casual clothing.
In the capable hands of Strasser and Rorschach Theatre, Cowhig’s post-modern melding of Buddhist philosophy, Chinese mythology, digital-pop-culture, clowning, and family tragedy provides a genre-bending thrill ride that generates both laughter and the contemplation on mortality and loss.
Running time: Approximately 85 minutes, with no intermission.