Review: ‘Tornkid’ by Cohesion Theatre Company and Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective

For its second show of the season, Cohesion Theatre Company has partnered with the recently-formed Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective to devise and produce the world premiere of Tornkid, by Katelynn Kenney. The show is a great example of Cohesion’s updated mission, demonstrating its commitment to collaborating with interesting, talented cohorts and presenting “bold, character-driven stories that give opportunities to underrepresented voices and artists.”

The cast of Tornkid. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography.

In the creation of Tornkid, folks from Cohesion and Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective held a devising workshop. The Asian American and Pacific Indigenous (AAPI) artists shared myths and stories they were told growing up; this Southeast Asian and Pacific Indigenous folklore features significantly in the play.

Tornkid, a child of immigrants, struggles with identity. Competing cultural desires and expectations pull them to and fro, eventually compelling them to tear themself in two. Their other half houses their voice and takes off running. Quickly regretting their decision, Tornkid spends the remainder of the play searching for their other half in the realm of myth and folklore. They meet fantastical characters – some helpful, some not – and learn about themselves and their place in the world.

Tornkid explores issues of duality and identity, particularly in relation to the experience of first-generation Americans. The children of immigrants face challenges and worries unique to their situation. If they fully embrace American culture, are they betraying their heritage? Will they always be that weird ethnic kid with the smelly lunch and unfamiliar clothes or accent? Are they bad if they just want to fit in at school? The beautiful message of Tornkid is that they don’t have to choose; they don’t have to abandon one culture in favor of another. They can embrace both and know that they are enough just as they are, whatever the ingredients are that make them them.

Three of the five actors played dual roles. Jess Rivera did double duty as the Tree Spirit – for which she used a surprisingly expressive puppet, designed by Jess Rassp, which looked a bit like an old, battle-hardened Groot – and as the brave Sea Warrior. Mika Nakano portrayed Tornkid’s Other Half and the Trickster. Nakano also designed the poster for this show and has impressed me with her graphic design skills all around town lately. I loved Brian Lai as both the Fairy Goddess and the Fisherman (also my favorite puppet); I was surprised to read in the program that this production marks his first stage performance.

Kim Le is charming as the Magic Teller, who, serving as a narrator and guide, engages directly with the audience/ancestors.

Surasree Das as Tornkid. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography.

Finally, as Tornkid, is Surasree Das. In Tornkid, Das is 100% believable as a torn kid. There’s a scene in a cafeteria where she is offered a mini pizza. As she agonizes and stomps and overthinks the no-win situation, I wondered to myself how old she is. Assuming she is in school, I thought it must be tough to have a show during final exams. Only later, at home, did I put together that I saw this actor – who I believed so completely that I assumed she was a 16-year-old student in real life – is the same old-enough-to-vote actor I saw 18 months ago in Lear who wowed me as the obsessively self-absorbed, much older, Goneril. Chameleon! And not just because of lucky genes or good costumers. As noted in previously-spoiled spoiler, Das doesn’t talk for a good portion of the show (her voice having run off with Mika Nakano). Expressing her character through her physicality – posture, gestures, movement – Das nails being a teenager.

The production team on Tornkid also did a great job. Director Cara Hinh elicited passionate performances from her actors. Cohesion Artistic Director Jess Rassp was the scenic and puppetry designer for the show, and the masks were created by Waxing Moon Masks Director, Tara Cariaso. I quite liked Elizabeth Ung’s AAPI-inspired costumes and I’m not sure whose bailiwick this falls under (Properties Designer Paulina Lamb, I expect?), but I loved the effect of using paper lanterns as air bubbles.

Tornkid has an interactive aspect (clapping along with the Magic Teller) that in the US we generally associate with children’s theater. And while kids will *love* this show, it’s not just for them. Clapping, for example, is common practice when entering a shrine. When the audience is asked to clap a certain number of times, it’s not simply a way to get people invested in the performance.

As unsurprising as it is to see the good folks at Cohesion embracing and supporting a new group of creatives – especially one that will increase the diversity in programming available to the Baltimore community – it still feels noteworthy. Tornkid is a successful collaboration that shows the kind of results you can get when the two talented arts organizations join forces on a project. Check it out.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Tornkid plays through June 9, 2019, at Cohesion Theatre, performing at The Fallout Shelter at United Evangelical Church – 923 S. East Avenue, Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.

Notes:

Tickets for all shows at Cohesion Theatre Company are Pay What You Can.

BAPAC has a GoFundMe!