When Paul Tei first noticed Kristina Wong, he was sitting in the audience watching her perform her show Free? at the 2008 edition of the South Beach Comedy Festival. Tei, founder of Miami’s Mad Cat Theatre Company and an actor now juggling recurring roles on two television series, was impressed.
“I had a great time watching her,” says Tei, who introduced himself after the show and stayed in touch via e-mail. “She was a little Spalding Gray, a little Saturday Night Live, a little Mad Cat. What she was doing was where I wanted to go with the company — a sociopolitical agenda put across with humor.”
Tei and Wong, both of whom now live in Los Angeles, have become friends and artistic collaborators. They have teamed for yet another Wong solo show, Going Green the Wong Way (she’s great with tongue-in-cheek titles). Under the Mad Cat banner, the piece begins a three-night world premiere run on Thursday in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Wong’s best-known piece to date is a full-length solo show, Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , about the high rate of depression, mental illness and suicide among Asian-American women. The play is improbably funny, but Wong acknowledges that it is draining to perform, and her life as a touring solo performer can be isolating.
Tei, who plays Barry the money launderer on the made-in-Miami series Burn Notice, moved to Los Angeles last year to take a shot at expanding his career in television and movies — already he has landed another recurring role as manager of a pair of skateboard stars in the Disney series Zeke and Luther.
His first week in town, Tei noticed that Wong was performing her show Whoring for Hollywood . He went; they reconnected and became great pals. About a year ago, he went to a Santa Monica art exhibit devoted to Los Angelenos who live without cars, Wong being one of them. In Wong’s performance there, Tei discovered the nugget of Going Green.
At the gallery, Wong used a slide show to help her tell the story of the vegetable oil-powered 1981 pink Mercedes she thought would fit her profile as a passionate environmentalist.
“Saving the planet became my Joan of Arc mission at a young age,” says Wong, a third generation Chinese American who grew up in San Francisco. “The one thing I could be perfect at was being a fanatic about the environment.
“I documented my experience because I naively wanted to show people how easy and fun it is to have an environmentally friendly car. Instead, it became a total money pit and a nightmare. It caught on fire. It was traumatizing. So I decided not to buy another car.”
Tei loved the way Wong talked about her carless life: using public transportation or a bicycle; walking and, when she has to go someplace hard to reach or fetch something heavy, posting her need for a ride on Facebook.
“I told her I wanted Mad Cat to bring her to Miami,” Tei says. “We started working on a script. I asked her a bunch of questions. It was like building an album: We had our Stairway to Heaven, so we had to build the rest around it. We wrote things on stick ‘ems and put them all over her walls. Then we workshopped the show at a piano bar, at a Comedy Central space and in Las Vegas.”
Now Tei has come home, bringing his friend and collaborator to perform a piece he describes as “not a traditional one-person show.”
For one thing, Wong interacts with three assistant stage managers who play characters called Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Tei hired a choreographer to provide grace notes of movement. The show has a design team and the Arsht Center’s marketing muscle.
“I’m not used to all this help,” Wong says. “Paul is amazing as a director. I’m not used to being presented and supported by an entire company. And everyone gets paid!”
Tei, who has been taping TV pilot season auditions with the help of his parents while home working on Going Green, will head back to L.A. after the show’s brief run. But he swears that, despite his relocation, Mad Cat isn’t going anywhere. In fact, he’s planning another original piece for the company’s future home at Miami Light Project’s new space next summer.
“I feel Mad Cat needs to be a Miami company. Theater is so different in L.A. Nobody wants to pay for it,” he says. “Even if a lot of the faces change, Mad Cat will continue to be a creative outlet for me, like a live journal. Theater is what I love. It’s in my DNA. Whether people like it or not, I know the work will be talked about.”