Review: Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord Is an Actually Funny Show About the Pandemic
When the world is falling apart and your government is failing, why not sew your way out of it?
Who knew the last 20 months could be such a laugh riot? Kristina Wong, that's who. The monologist and amateur seamstress is currently causing audiences to keel over (with laughter!) in her new solo show, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, now playing New York Theatre Workshop. I guarantee it's the most fun you'll have with Covid all year.
Wong takes audiences through her own personal pandemic story, from being a working theater artist to sitting in her apartment in LA's Koreatown under lockdown, obsessively scrolling through doomsday news reports. But instead of turning toward Tiger King or bread-making to pass the time, Wong begins sewing masks — and publicizing her good deed. Soon the requests for PPE are coming in so heavy that she enlists the help of hundreds of volunteers (mostly Asian women) whom she dubs the Auntie Sewing Squad, or ASS. But as the year of horrors grinds on — through street protests, a nasty presidential election, a second spike in Covid cases, an attempted coup in Washington, and a wave of anti-Asian violence — Wong wonders how she can keep her ASS motivated.
Wong carries much of this 90-minute show with the sheer force of her personality. Her charisma seems boundless, supporting a cinematic imagination that sees her transform into a drill sergeant, a drug dealer, and yes, a sweatshop overlord. Behind my own mask, my mouth fell open as I witnessed her vigorously monologue throughout a Pilates routine (meant to demonstrate the self-defense course she took with her mother). She's like a human cartoon, both elastic and ecstatic.
Director Chay Yew supports the frenetic tone Wong sets through a production that is equally vibrant and dynamic. The thrust stage resembles a nursery for sewing-machine-happy adults, complete with giant pincushion bean bags and multicolored block-like USPS boxes (set design by Junghyun Georgia Lee). Linda Cho outfits Wong like an action figure (a black jumpsuit is removed to reveal pink camouflage). Lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel collaborate seamlessly to create razor-sharp cues, allowing Wong to practically jump-cut live onstage. An upstage wall of masks serves as a screen for Caite Hevner's projections, which regularly intrude on Wong's sweatshop with archival footage of each fresh hell of 2020-21.
It is a testament to Wong's skill as a comedian that she is able to make us laugh at this rehash of memories we'd all rather suppress. Of course, she knows that she is preaching to the vaccinated, fastidiously masked choir. A segment in which she conscripts audience members to read straw-man explanations of vaccine hesitancy smacks of the kind of lefty intellectual insularity that I fear has only become worse through a year of sheltering in place.
But by giving audiences the permission to laugh at uncomfortable things in the safety of a like-minded crowd, Wong is doing a necessary service in our wind-down of the pandemic years. It's a rare treat to laugh with a roomful of strangers these days, and I look forward to doing it again bareback — that is to say, unmasked.