Starweek Magazine

Can the Wong Kids save the world?

Michele T. Logarta - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - It’s no fun being a nerd and the kid nobody wants to hang out with…until you’re called on to battle a monster to save the universe. Now how cool is that?!

That’s the premise of the acclaimed children’s play The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go! by Lloyd Suh, which goes on stage starting Sept. 15 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which is partnering with Ma-Yi Theater Company of New York.

Usually referred to as the play with the long weird name, The Wong Kids uses a mix of action-driven storytelling, puppetry and visual magic to tell the fantastic tale of a brother and sister who travel to outer space to save the world from total annihilation by an evil beast called the Space Chupacabra.

But The Wong Kids is more than just a sci-fi adventure play, replete with strange and alien creatures, intergalactic travel, asteroid fields, exploding meteors, flying rocks, song and dance and lots of hilarity.

Director Ralph Peña, artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater, says that the story is basically about diversity and difference. 

Siblings Bruce, 11, and Violet, 13, Wong are outsiders, he explains. They’re adopted and they’re nerds, and growing up in the suburbs, they don’t fit in. Violet is at that very awkward stage of a girl trying to be like all other girls. She has all these issues of a teenager whereas Bruce just wants to play superhero. 

Aldo Vencilao, who plays Bruce, describes his character as your typical nerd. “He likes fantasy books, comics and he wants to be a superhero. Because of his nerdiness, he is ostracized, unpopular and always alone. He is the kid that no one wants to hang out with. But despite that, Bruce is very brave. He just wants to be a kid and save the world.”

Violet, on the other hand, doesn’t want any of what Bruce wants. “She struggles to be NOT different,” actress Blanche Buhia explains.  “She’s very insecure about herself because her friends are cool and she’s a bit weird. She feels that she doesn’t belong and she’s ashamed of being different.”

“We are all different and we are all nerds in some way, awkward and have maybe seemingly useless gifts. But if celebrate them and work together, we can actually do something. I like that the play doesn’t preach or synthesize lessons for the audiences,” adds Peña. “Lloyd (the playwright) imagined this world from a child’s perspective so it never panders to children; it never tries to talk down to them. It’s at their level and he doesn’t spell out and doesn’t spoon feed the images to the kids.”

According to Peña, the villains in the play aren’t black and white. They’re a little more complicated than usual. “We show how they became bad and what their issues were. They were bullied and ostracized... which is what happens to kids.”

Peña remembers having felt like an outsider when he was in high school. “It was the worst time in my life, horrendously bad, awful. I was different because I grew up in the US and then I came here. I didn’t know the social rules. I shouldn’t answer all the teachers’ questions, volunteer too much; they thought I was too ma-papel. I was a fish out of water.”

The Wong Kids assures children that it’s OK to be different and that bullies aren’t as tough and fearsome as they pretend to be. There’s a reason they’re that way. Body shaming, Peña cites, is also somewhere in the play.

“Grade school and high school are the meanest times in children’s lives,” Peña says. “Children are the meanest creatures, especially in high school. They don’t hold back. That’s why this resonated very well with the kids that we played to in the US. They face these things every day. In some way or form, they relate and we thought that these very same themes will resonate here because I think these things happen everywhere.”

Co-created with the Children’s Theater Company (CTC) of Minneapolis, the leading children’s theater in the US, The Wong Kids took five years to develop. The play has earned raves in three US cities – Minneapolis, New York City and Boston – and has had children sitting on the edge of their seats, standing, dancing and yelling the way sports fans do at a ballgame. And it wasn’t just the children; adults in the audiences were just as engrossed and entertained by this play.  The New York Times sang paeans to what it called an “exuberantly imaginative adventure for children...and its insistence on being extraordinary proves the upside of standing out.”

It all began with a phone call from Peter Brosius, artistic director of the CTC, after he had seen Ma-Yi’s The Romance of Magno Rubio, the play written by Lonnie Carter based on Carlos Bulosan’s short story, in New York. “He liked it so much he called me and said we should work together. He asked me which writer I was interested in and I said Lloyd.”

Script development, for Ma-Yi, is a protracted process. “We don’t do quickies,” Peña says.

A major objective of Ma-Yi Theater Company is to develop new plays that explore and affect Asian-American experiences while challenging the perceptions of what culturally specific theater should be. By producing forward thinking plays by today’s emerging playwrights, Ma-Yi believes that theater can play an important part in breaking down barriers and increasing the understanding and appreciation of the cultural and ethnic diversity of contemporary society.

The script took some time to evolve. The first draft was completely different from the final one. Lloyd, according to Peña, was newly married at the start of the project and became a father during the time of the writing of the play. “His point of view changed and suddenly he was a father. He wanted to reflect that... I told him to keep making those crazy decisions, don’t hold back on trying to imagine the world and just write about it and let us figure out how we were going to stage it. And that’s what he did.”

The Wong Kids will be presented in English here in Manila. For the two leads, it is their first English language play.  

Blanche says that the hardest part, so far, has been to try and make it sound real. “Sometimes, when you speak in English, you try to color it, exaggerate it. Sir Ralph said to just try and be as natural as you can.”

Aldo, Blanche and the four others in the cast – Jonathan Tadioan, Marco Viaña, Juliene Mendoza and Aika Zabala – are all members of Tanghalang Pilipino’s The Actors Company. They emerged as Peña’s top picks from 60 actors who auditioned.

“I was looking for actors who can come into the role without any preconceived ideas about how to play the characters, who could focus on the idea behind the script and who performed with clarity. I was specifically looking for clarity. I knew I could never assemble a cast that spoke like they all came from Kansas. I knew I couldn’t get that here and that there would many type of ‘Englishes’ spoken in the play here. What’s important is not how they sound but that they were clear with intent and clear about character.”

Bringing the play to the Philippines has presented challenges in logistics as well. The play is a mixture of different theatrical forms – puppetry, shadow puppetry, black light – and keeping it as simple as possible. The set, Peña says, resembles a children’s playground with gym equipment that needed to be brought in along with the puppets and various props, all shipped in in seven huge boxes.

The puppets were designed by David Parkinson Valentine, puppet builder for the Jim Henson Company. One of the puppets, a fluffy green creature, originally 15 feet long in the US production, had to be downsized to five feet for its Philippine debut and was hand carried by Peña on the plane to Manila. 

“I couldn’t risk it because it was more fragile than the rest of the puppets. It was packed in a seven foot coffin-like contraption,” says Peña.  “I had to explain to customs what I was doing with it because I was sure they thought there must be drugs inside it.”

Ma-Yi is bringing in Lloyd, the playwright, and Joseph Wolfslau, associate sound designer. The Wong Kids, which features original music and sound design by Shane Rettig, will be using surround sound which is currently not available at the CCP. “Sound is a very big element of the show and we need a specific set up and equipment.”

The Wong Kids represents the CCP’s commitment to present more children- and family-oriented material in the performing arts, says CCP artistic director Chris Millado. 

“We had a head start with the highly successful Halloween Family concerts where kids could come in costume and attend a special program of classical music at the Main Theater. The CCP collaborated with the Philippine Board on Books for Young People by adapting the children’s story book Sandosenang Sapatos into a musical. The resident companies present full length ballets of Peter Pan, Cinderella, The Nutcracker and the CCP wishes to add to these content by presenting The Wong Kids.”

The Wong Kids also energizes the longstanding collaboration of the CCP with Ma-Yi Theater, Millado adds. At the CCP, Ma-Yi has presented American Hwangap, also by Lloyd Suh, and The Romance of Magno Rubio.


The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Ship Chupacabra Go! is presented in association with Tanghalang Pilipino and Philippine Air Lines with the support of Stage Craft International. Sept. 16 to 25, with shows at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the CCP Little Theater. For inquiries and tickets, contact CCP Marketing 832-3704/3706 or Tanghalang Pilipino at 832-1125 loc. 1620-1621.


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