There's an affecting story at the heart of widely produced playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's "410[Gone]," a Crowded Fire Theater world premiere.
But that story is buried so deep and coalesces so late in the course of the play, which is billed as a "contemporary Chinese-American fairy tale," that by the time we get to it, it's too late.
We're so mired in confusion about who the characters are, and what they're up to, and so overwhelmed by chaos (deafening shouting, animated video projections, overly stylized acting, insanely rapid voiceovers) that it's hard to care.
A young woman (Cindy Im, at first inexplicably cheery, later quite touching) is trying to contact her adored younger brother (a bland Christopher James Cortez), who committed suicide. Her efforts involve her laptop and bizarre mathematical equations.
For his part, the brother touches down in the underworld, which is ruled by the Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin (Charisse Loriaux), who very unmercifully mans a help hotline and mind-controls a wacky-trickster Monkey King (Alexander M Lydon).
The Goddess is surprised at kid brother's three-dimensional, non-digitized appearance, and tells him he's in China. "This doesn't look like China, it looks like an arcade," he says. It sort of does — but the set (by director Evren Odcikin) is as confusing as everything else.
Goddess and King have the painted-mask faces and elaborate, colorful costumes (beautifully designed by Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) of Chinese opera.
But despite their assured and physically adept acting, the exaggerated body language — again referencing traditional Chinese opera performance style — grows tiresome, as do their outsized personalities.
That's because for most of the play the mythological pair seem to exist solely to amuse. Their larger purpose is obscured amid the pandemonium.
Things happen that, if not immersed in such an unwieldy plot, would be intriguing.
The kid brother challenges Goddess and King to physical battles (nicely choreographed by Carla Pantoja) and ancient parables are related. The Goddess takes on varied personae: prototype Chinese woman, TV show host. Sister and brother, temporarily reunited, occasionally replay childhood games, assuming the roles of stereotypical Chinese characters.
Why would a Chinese-American teenage boy be so suicidal? How can a devoted sister come to terms with loss and unfulfilled love? And how does their cultural heritage affect them? Despite some lovely, lyrical writing, and an impressive imagination, Cowhig largely obfuscates these most potent, and emotionally resonant, elements of her play.REVIEW
Presented by Crowded Fire Theater
Where: Thick House, 695 18th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; closes June 29
Tickets: $10 to $35
Contact: (415) 746-9238, www.crowdedfire.org