‘Phantom Loss’ puppet show conjures ghosts, game shows and chicken

A poster
The show by Oanh Vu brings together Vietnamese mythology and pop culture.
Courtesy of Oanh Vu

It’s a “tragicomedy” filled with boiled chicken and wacky game shows with a ghost dog named Chicken.

That’s the strange, sad and hilarious world Minnesotan playwright Oanh Vu has created with “Phantom Loss,” now showing at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater in Minneapolis.

Phantom Loss follows Thuy, a young Vietnamese American girl stuck in a small Minnesota town with her mom who runs a nail salon. She befriends Chicken, and the two embark on a journey through the spirit world and the real world.

The elaborate show, which is told through a combination of hand and shadow puppets, is set during the Vietnamese festival of Vu Lan, or Wandering Souls Day — a time when ghosts are released from the underworld and free to experience the pleasures of the living.

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The decision to set the piece during Vu Lan enabled Vu to create a mystical reality in which ghost dogs, multi-eyed birds, and a young teenage girl frustrated by her mom can all exist together.

And it took a whole team to bring it to life.

“There was Orren Fen and Steve Ackerman who made the sets,” shared Vu. “Andrew Young and Leyen Trang made shadow puppets and helped me make puppets as well.”

The story, while fantastical and intricate, is also deeply personal.

“I think about my own family’s history. And a lot of us are still processing and healing from that, including my own family members. And so, I knew I wanted to tell a story that was helping us to heal,” Vu said.

But she didn’t want it to be only heaviness.

“I wanted it to in some ways capture a lot of the hilarity and lightness that I think we also experience in the face of tragedy sometimes,” she said. “All we can do is just laugh at certain elements of our lives.”

In that way, the show lives true to its promise of being a tragicomedy, bringing heartbreak and laughs. But ultimately, it’s about healing and remembering.

“Because the presence of ghosts is so strong in our culture, we don’t forget about those who have passed,” Vu said. “I think it’s like really beautiful to think about how our ancestors are still connected to us and how can we still learn from them.”

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. Phantom Loss runs at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater from March 28 to April 7.