Marjorie Chan has done wonderful work bringing forward the six characters from Sunrise, a 1936 Chinese play by Cao Yu, in a multi-layered contemporary drama set in a money-and-real-estate-obsessed Vancouver.
Lady Sunrise takes its name from a beauty pageant in which Penny (Lindsay Wu) was once a runner-up. A native of Richmond BC, she now prefers to be known as Lulu and her work as a model has led to gigs as a paid companion to politicians and celebs at public events. She’s learned the lingo of female success (“Believe in yourself. . . fight the patriarchy”), but failure lies just around the corner.
Her boyfriend is Frankie Pan (the “men of the male species” in this play are present only by word-of-mouth), a denizen of clubs and casinos.
Tawny Ku (Ma-Anne Dionisio) is Penny’s auntie, not her real mother, but someone who takes a controlling interest in her. Tawny, known to her banker as Crazy Ku, is big in real estate – thanks to money obtained through husbands past – and she is on the verge of closing a deal on construction of a Vancouver condo tower.
Banker Wong (Rosie Simon) is a marathon runner, as aggressive in her power suit as she is in running shoes. Dealer Li (Zoé Doyle) is a croupier at a Vancouver-area casino and she has a less glamourous tale to tell. “I was a cleaner here first,” she says. Then her husband lost his job and she had to go to work as a blackjack dealer, a job that entails long hours and long waits for public transportation at night.
Charmaine (Louisa Zhu) enters in more traditional Chinese silk pants and short tunic. She finds Banker Wong on the road crippled with a Charley horse and fixes her up with a calf massage. Apparently Charmaine runs a massage parlor. Sherry (Belinda Corpuz) is the victim of an accident or injury: she appears in a hospital gown.
So tightly written is Lady Sunrise, that sorting out the relationships in the play can be a challenge. Despite the strong element of satire, it’s clear some tragedy is about to unfold, but you have to backtrack in your mind to see how the various characters are connected to it.
Director Nina Lee Aquino has staged the play on a series of ramps, angled up to one corner stage back and offering the perfect metaphor for parallel lives. At intervals during a character’s monologue, the other four or five women enter in formation in belted trench coats and neon-coloured wigs. They don’t speak but make an effective Greek chorus in their fancy footwork.
All of the actors turn in absorbing performances. What strikes the viewer is not some insight into the lives of Asian-Canadian women, but the fact that their stories could involve women of any background. In a week when Harvey Weinstein was sent to jail for sexual assault, Lady Sunrise seemed especially well timed.
Written by Marjorie Chan
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
Set design by Camellia Koo; costume design by Jackie Chau
Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay; sound and composition by Debashis Sinha
Movement directed by Natasha Mumba
At Factory Theatre, Toronto until March 8
Photo of (back) Zoé Doyle, Rosie Simon, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Louisa Zhu, Belinda Corpuz and (front) Lindsay Wu by Joseph Michael