Vancouver

A still from Ma-Yi Studios' "Vancouver," playing now as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. 

“We Are Out There”

If the world premiere musical “It Came from Outer Space” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater next year is anything like the “digital prologue” online now, it will be a blast.

Created by the musical's writers Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair and editor Daniel Schloss, “We Are Out There” is a marvelous mashup of slick filmmaking and cheesy special effects. It's based, like the upcoming live show, on the iconic 1953 black-and-white sci-fi movie from the story by Ray Bradbury.

The 45-minute mockumentary begins with a voice-over from documentarian Sunny (Cher Álvarez) who, after pondering questions like “when's dinner?”, wonders what's out there in the starry sky. She treats us to a brief history of investigations into extraterrestrial activity, then gets to the point: She wants to uncover the real story behind what happened in Sand Rock, Arizona, beyond what's in the movie or musical.

Her arguably skewed account focuses on the troubled marriage of scientist John Putnam (Christopher Kale Jones) and Ellen Fields (Jaye Ladymore), as well as Ellen's relationship with Sheriff Matt Warren (Alex Goodrich). We also meet barfly Coral (E. Faye Butler), who treats us to a rousing song about men with sock puppets, and a host of townspeople who may or may not have been taken over by aliens (all played by Joe Kinosian).

We never actually see any of the space monsters, but Kristin Chenoweth has a cameo auditioning to play one, and Sheriff Warren gets into escalating arguments with the Grommulex in a radio. Intrepid reporter Sunny's thorough approach includes other auditions — for the roles of John and Ellen — and lots of silly commentary from locals like the dairyman.

A handful of tuneful songs slated for the musical are highlights of the “prologue,” and the talented ensemble brings them to life with the help of music director Jermaine Hill, orchestrator Macy Schmidt and music recording producer Carey Deadman. They range from the title number “We Are Out There” featuring spooky childlike voices to....well, “The End,” which has a definite finality about it. Or not. Watch to find out.

Chicago ShakesSTREAM, through June 20, $25. chicagoshakes.com

“Vancouver”

Last September, Ma-Yi Theater Company, a New York-based ensemble dedicated to new work about what it means to be Asian-American today, joined forces with the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival to film the online premiere of “Vancouver” in a rustic barn in Wisconsin (with all pandemic protocols in place).

Written and directed by Ma-Yi producing artistic director Ralph B. Peña and created in collaboration with co-director of the Chicago Puppet Studio Tom Lee, the 35-minute play examines the insidious racism encountered by a mixed-race family that relocates from Japan to the Pacific Northwest, but it's really more about the alienation within the dysfunctional family itself.

Father Hiro (voiced by James Yaegashi), whose interior monologue dominates the piece, is increasingly estranged from his American wife, Amy (Cindy Cheung), who drinks herself to sleep most nights. Neither of them can talk to their 19-year-old daughter, Ashley (Shannon Tyo), who has been diagnosed with Asperger's, can barely manage to do anything but play video games but gets involved in online sex chat, and feels like an alien whether she's at home or running away to a park bench.

Not much happens except for arguments and Hiro's decision to take Ashley back to Japan. The only halfway normal relationship is between Hiro and his rather mangy poodle Lucky (Daniel K. Isaac), and even that involves betrayal.

Interestingly, Lucky is the only puppet whose mouth and eyes move, making him seem somehow the most human and appealing character. The others, with their glassy eyes and craggy features, are strange and sad, despite being expertly manipulated by puppeteers Mark Blashford, Tom Lee and K.T. Shivak.

The whole creative team — Alec Styborski (editor), Francisco Aliwalas (director of photography), Fabian Obispo (composer), Jaerin Son (lead scenic design), Chicago Puppet Studio (production design), K.T. Shivak (puppet design), Blair Thomas (puppetry consultant), Aaron Herschlag (grip), Eric Roediger (motion graphics), Jesse Jae Hoon (titles), Paul Lieber (sound design) and Three Crown Studios (sound mastering — deserves credit for pulling off a complicated project that's like nothing else I've seen so far this season.

Ma-Yi Theater Company and The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, open run, free. chicagopuppetfest.org, ma-yistudios.com

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