‘Stuck Elevator’ explores downs of Chinese immigrant experience

The term “boxed in” takes on new meaning in the world premiere of American Conservatory Theater’s “Stuck Elevator,” based on the true story of a Chinese deliveryman trapped in a Bronx, N.Y., elevator for 81 hours.

“The story really intrigued me,” says Julius Ahn, who plays the lead character, Guang. “Here is somebody that seems to be integrated into mainstream America. You see the surface, but what’s beneath is much more complex.

It’s such a compelling story of one man, his background and coming to America — to live that dream.”

The unique production, by composer Byron Au Yong and librettist Aaron Jafferis, combines musical theater, opera and solo performance, and is directed by Obie Award winner Chay Yew. Performances, sung in English, have Chinese supertitles.

The story initially finds Guang confined and confused. If he sounds the elevator’s alarm, it could draw attention to his status as an undocumented immigrant. Leaving everything up to fate, he’s forced to replay memories of his life in China as well as his hopes and dreams.

Hallucinations happen, too, and Ahn, whose credits include “Madame Butterfly” at the Nashville Opera, takes the audience on a voyage that blurs reality and imagination. “It’s an important story and a very emotional journey,” he says.

Yet the majority of Guang’s memories play themselves out beyond the confines of a 4-by-6-by-8-foot box.

Marie-France Arcilla, Raymond J. Lee, Joseph Anthony Foronda and Joel Perez take on multiple roles playing Guang’s family and close associates.

“Stuck Elevator” had a fascinating creative ride up. It originally was written as a solo show. In 2011, when more characters were added, it generated buzz at Sundance Institute Theatre Lab. ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff discovered it, marveling at how a production about a frightened Chinese deliveryman stuck in an elevator could morph into “a hilarious and heartbreaking musical about hunger, immigration, family, dreams and duck sauce.”

Still, it’s a difficult role for Ahn to shake. “It’s not a character that I can easily let go of — even when the run is over,” he says. “It’s such a story that permeates all of us because it’s based on a real person. It’s the story most Americans go through, especially if you were born in another country and you come here trying to make a better life for yourself.”

Stuck Elevator

  • Where: American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary St., S.F.
  • When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes April 28
  • Tickets: $20 to $90
  • Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org
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