There’s nothing especially new about the themes underpinning “The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!’’
After all, the history of children’s entertainment abounds in tales of young adventurers who conquer foes while also vanquishing self-doubt, who repair frayed family ties, and who learn in the end that — in the immortal words of a certain tornado-traveling teenager named Dorothy — there’s no place like home.
But 13-year-old Violet and her 11-year-old brother Bruce — played by adult actors Sasha Diamond (funny and sharp as Violet) and Alton Alburo (appealingly gung-ho as Bruce) — go a lot farther than Oz in the fanciful “Wong Kids.’’ All the way from their suburban street to a distant planet named Grixnoo, in fact. It appears that Grixnoo is being menaced by the hungry space monster of the title, who snacks on planets like they are so many hors d’oeuvres.
The mission of our young would-be superheroes: Stop the Chupacabra and save the universe. And then, presumably, do their homework.
Written by Lloyd Suh, this rollicking sci-fi adventure is a production by Ma-Yi Theater Company, a New York-based troupe that defines its central mission as “to develop and produce new and innovative plays by Asian-American writers.’’ The production now at the Paramount Center, presented by ArtsEmerson, is helmed by Ralph B. Pena, Ma-Yi’s artistic director.
While making inventive use of large puppets, including a dragon, Pena taps into the skills of a versatile cast that includes Kate Marley, Jon Hoche, Matthew Gunn Park, and George West Carruth. Each of them brings gusto to portrayals of characters with outlandish names and personalities to match: the Imperious Canute, Gimbop, Gyoza, and The Great Prognosticator,
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Along the way, Violet and Bruce also have to cope with meteors, beams that render them temporarily powerless, and the collapse of a giant mountain. Amid the intergalactic horseplay and sly messages about differences and diversity, playwright Suh consistently strives to have fun with language. “You look more like a couple of Glogsnorks than a Farkian Newfrog!’’ a “paranormal guru’’ named Captain Mars tells Violet and Bruce.
While sitting firmly in the tradition of coming-of-age stories, the play belongs to another, more recent strain of children’s entertainment that consciously seeks to also keep grown-ups amused. I’m not talking about the kind of smirky, strained inside jokes found in the “Shrek’’ movies, but rather a certain self-aware wit that is evident from the start of Suh’s play, when Violet discovers Bruce staring at a bunch of rocks in hopes he can make them move solely through the power of his mind. “This is why you have no friends!’’ the girl exclaims to her brother. “You gotta stop behaving like a unique and idiosyncratic individual. You’ll never fit in.’ ’’
It turns out that both Bruce and Violet are able to levitate rocks with mind-power. When they are enlisted to battle the Chupacabra, Bruce is eager for an adventure he sees as a chance to jettison his old identity, while also embracing a real-life version of the exploits in his comic books. Violet, however, is dubious that their lone “superpower’’ will be enough to save the universe, and beyond that, she is battling teen insecurities cleverly encapsulated in her exchange with “Nobody’’ (Marley) at a place called Anyplace Else.
Playwright Suh understands that teens and preteens simultaneously need and dread attention. He gets the paradoxical impulses to stand out and disappear, nicely captured in an early outburst by Violet that amounts to a universal cry of adolescence: “I mean, I wanna be ‘amazing’ but I don’t wanna be ‘strange,’ ” she declares. “I wanna be ‘spectacular’ but I don’t wanna be ‘weird.’ I wanna be ‘SPECIAL’ but I don’t wanna be ‘DIFFERENT.’ ”
“Wong Kids’’ is both.
THE WONG KIDS IN THE SECRET OF THE SPACE CHUPACABRA GO!
Play by Lloyd Suh. Directed by Ralph B. Pena. Production by Ma-Yi Theater Company. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Paramount Center Mainstage, through March 6. Tickets: $25-$75, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.