Chinese family saga embodied in one talented man

Jeff Ho is a quadruple threat: he can write, he can act, he can compose and he can raise the roof at the piano keys. trace, his one-man show at Factory Studio Theatre, has been in development for two years. The raw materials were easy to come by: his own family’s migrant history, traced through three generations of powerful Chinese women: his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.

Ho impersonates all three women, shifting to the piano to pound out Beethoven or a popular tune as the storyline calls for it.

Fully outfitted in an elegant ivory suit and tropical shoes, Ho enters as an apparently delirious woman entertaining a nightmare vision of rats overrunning her home. This is great-grandma, Kwan Bo Siu, 85 at this time (2001) and living in a tiny apartment in Hong Kong. She calls for her granddaughter, 44-year-old Kwan Miu Chi, known as Ma. “Where’s Ma? When I wake up I want my money and my food. I want my cigarettes.” Ho as great-grandma deftly produces what looks like a lit cigarette from a sleeve and puffs on it. This trick with a cigarette, the piano accompaniment and the shedding of clothes on Ho’s part become the motifs that tie together a 100-year family saga. “I smoke til I one hundred,” says a defiant great-grandma, and we get a measure of the woman who saved her family and set them on a course first for Hong Kong and then for Canada.

She’s the Mahjong Queen who gambles away so much cash her son and daughter-in-law have to take on extra jobs to keep them fed and clothed. But great-grandmother has born unmentionable tragedy and hardship.

“My family sold me for 10 chickens and a horse,” she declares, lighting another cigarette or shouting out Mahjong! She met her husband on the day of their wedding. But luck was not with them. “What a useless soldier,” she crows. He is killed by the Japanese who have invaded China and Great-Grandma arranges to escape by boat from Guangzhou to Hong Kong with her two sons.

One of them marries and this is where Ho’s grandma, Kwan Wei Foon (64 years old at the time in the play) comes in. In flashbacks, Ho shows how hard grandma worked, often frustrated by her mother-in-law’s bad habits and the struggle to keep alive through the war years. Ma, mother of Jeff and his brother Eric, embarks from Hong Kong for Toronto, working terrible jobs, browbeating her younger son to practise classical piano and threatening him with removal of lessons should he start playing songs – as Ho does – like “Can’t help falling in love with you.” In Ma’s mind Jeff should think only of becoming a chartered accountant. Luckily for us, he moves to Montreal and pursues a theatrical career.

Just over an hour long, trace is structured as a piano sonata in five movements with a prologue and coda. But this demarcation does nothing to allow us to follow the story that has been chopped up into pieces that shift rapidly between times and characters. Better direction might have opened the play up some, so that we could pick up the thread of the story and clearly identify each of the three women at any given moment. Better dramaturgy might have shaped the play into fragments that cohere more. While anyone can marvel at Ho’s acting, piano playing and mastery of emotion, one is not entirely sure who’s who at the point at which a family tragedy is revealed.

trace

Written, composed and performed by Jeff Ho

Directed by Nina Lee Aquino with dramaturgy by Matt McGeachy

Set by Michelle Ramsay and Nina Lee Aquino

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Costume by Joanna Yu

A Factory Theatre production in association with b current performing arts

At Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, through December 3

Photo of Jeff Ho by Dahlia Katz

Poison packs a wallop

A woman and a man arrive, separately, in the reception room of a Dutch cemetery. They’ve been summoned to a meeting. The soil is contaminated and as many as 200 graves will have to be moved, including that of their loved one. This is the first time they have seen each other in 10 years – nine, argues the ex-husband – since the New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1999 when he, bearing two suitcases, walked out the door of their home. He now lives in Normandy, France. And he has arrived for this meeting first. “You’re early,” she says upon entry. When it’s time to sit down, they leave lots of room between them.

Poison takes this couple a long way in 75 minutes and we go with them, moved, amused and finally wiser than when we came in.

Written by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans, Poison has been a hit in Europe. Coal Mine Theatre commissioned Rina Vergano to write an English translation and the result is an intimate performance that seems tailor-made for the tiny stage at the storefront theatre on the Danforth.

We soon understand that the grave, now mired in a toxic “muck,” is that of the couple’s dead son Jacob. Slowly, painfully, the story of their marriage, their loss and their very separate griefs unspools.

Fiona Highet and Ted Dykstra make much of their roles, under the direction of Peter Pasyk. On a bare set with only a water cooler, four chairs and the occasional piano phrase or projection of a stained-glass window pane to slightly alter the mood, they engage in ways requiring a skilled actor’s attentiveness to space and gesture.

Exits and entries mark the changes in their stances toward each other, but those attitudes can shift within a few sentences. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he says once she’s arrived. “Don’t look too closely,” she fires back, with a wry grin. It’s downhill from there. The awkward silences, the small talk, the polite inquiries,  devolve into a shouting match, as they hurl at each other the toxic words both know can wound. “Everything was always your drama,” he barks, accusing her of wallowing in her grief. “You’re pathetic . .  . heartless,” she says, levelling her worst at her journalist ex.

The brilliance of Poison is in the expression of profound grief and emotional epiphanies through everyday language and ordinary images used poetically. It’s not the remembering but the way they remember that determines the movement in the play. Her smile, which brought out a dimple, is how he’s preserved his wife. She recalls only the back of him as he went out the door.

A repeated phrase, “so this is it?” marks the moments when things start to change.

Memory is a thread that runs through this play. People can hang on to pain and it is always fresh in their recollection of it. But holding on to positive memories serves a different function.

Dykstra and Highet, on the wings of a wonderful script, take us to unexpected places and a realization that you really do only have this now, this moment, to make the most of whatever life has dealt you.

Poison

By Lot Vekemans, translated by Rina Vergano

Directed by Peter Pasyk

Set and lighting by Patrick Lavender

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Sound by Beau Dixon

Produced by Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto, running through December 3

Photo of Fiona Highet and Ted Dykstra by Dahlia Katz

The Winter’s Tale is a world of wonders

The Winter’s Tale is a triumph for the National Ballet of Canada, performing at its versatile best in Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s late, great play. Sometimes termed a “problem play,” this fantasy about a king who loses all through jealousy and rage then finds redemption through love and forgiveness is not obvious material for a story ballet.  

Premiered in April 2014 at the Royal Opera House in London, where Wheeldon is the Royal Ballet’s artistic associate, the three-act dance has magic in it, conjured through Wheeldon’s choreography, Joby Talbot’s grand orchestral score and Bob Crowley’s bold designs for sets and costumes. Basil Twist’s innovative painted silks carry us through time and across oceans with a touch of abracadabra.

Piotr Stanczyk gives an achingly good performance as Leontes, King of Sicilia. His heart curdles with jealousy when he suspects his long-time friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, of impregnating his wife Hermione, the Queen of Sicilia. Leontes sends Polixenes packing, has Hermione imprisoned and after her presumed death directs his head of household Antigonus (Jonathan Renna) to abandon Hermione’s baby girl on an island. Leontes’ violence has so shocked his son Mamillius (Jamie Street) that he dies too. The dark tragedy of the first act is countered with the sunny scenes of acts two and three, a Shakespearean comedy staged around an enormous mossy tree hung with shiny ornaments.

It is 16 years later and Leontes’ and Hermione’s daughter Perdita, rescued by a shepherd in Bohemia, is a beautiful young woman in love with Prince Florizel, Polixenes’ son, who has come to her disguised as another peasant Bohemian. Polixenes is infuriated to hear that his son has made a match beneath him, but after more disguises, a spring festival, an engagement and a wedding, all’s well that ends well.

The genius of co-creators Wheeldon, Talbot and Crowley is to use dance formations, music and visuals to tell a convoluted story freighted with emotion at every juncture.

The back story is sketched in quickly in an opening scene of lightly costumed dancers choreographed to telegraph an account of how two kings grew up as friends. The stage is transformed into the Sicilian royal court when two monumental arches roll on, accompanied by four classical statues (foreshadowing is another feature of this work, for a statue of the dead Hermione will come alive at the end). A joyful reunion of the two kings is spoiled when Leontes spies Polixenes chatting with a pregnant Hermione.

Stanczyk, in a dark green tunic, curls a rigid hand toward his gut, and enacts a stunning interpretation of a man consumed with jealousy and vindictiveness. Hannah Fischer’s Hermione is all lightness and purity even in full-term pregnancy. Their tussle and Leontes’ subsequent violent acts are truly disturbing. Harrison James’s Polixenes is the picture of nobility, but he too will be bent by anger, then turned into a buffoon as he and his steward pretend to be peasant minstrels. (Another innovation was to bring on a live banda, playing dulcimer, bansuri, accordion and drums, adding five more characters into the mix.)

It takes highly imaginative staging for a story like this to cohere over three hours. This is where Paulina, head of Queen Hermione’s household, comes in. Xiao Nan Yu’s grace as Paulina becomes the calm at the eye of the storm and the character who accompanies Leontes through all his travails. Xiao’s commanding presence from acts one through three provides necessary continuity.

Youthful Jillian Vanstone as Perdita is well matched with Naoya Ebe, a nimble shapeshifter as Florizel. Subconsciously, we understand the forces at play in this cathartic work. The stiffness and constraint of the Sicilian court is represented in dark colours, formal wear and angular dance moves. The fun-loving, swirling Bohemians are colourful men in skirts and ladies in flowers—their free spirit epitomized in pas de deux by Jordana Daumec and Dylan Tedaldi.

The Winter’s Tale is a show you’d like to see again and again, to pick out more choreographic details and maybe be moved to tears again by Stanczyk’s performance as a humbled, grieving father.

The Winter’s Tale

A production of the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, through November 19

Photo of Jillian Vanstone, Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk by Karolina Kuras.

Moving in every sense of the word

When someone suggested to Laurence Lemieux that she make a dance honoring the Canadians lost in World War I, her first thought was for the community where her Citadel + Compagnie is based: Toronto’s Regent Park.

It didn’t take much delving in the mass of war documents maintained in Canadian archives to locate eight men from the Dundas and Parliament neighbourhood killed in the battle for Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Two of them shared the same last name: a father and son who lived on Gerrard Street. One soldier Lemieux discovered was William James Hawkey. “He lived just around the corner from the Citadel in a house that remains today.”

Starting from the specific and the personal has paid off in Jusqu’a Vimy, a title best translated as All the way to Vimy. The through-line in this complex multi-media production is the journey taken by these young men, untrained recruits entering a war of a kind never before experienced.

Making drama has often been Lemieux’s choreographic modus operandi. She knew what she was doing when she picked from the archives the actual soldiers, then assembled her dancers — Luke Garwood, Andrew McCormack, Philip McDermott, Tyler Gledhill, Connor Mitton, Brodie Stevenson, Daniel Gomez, Zhenya Cerneacov and Kaitlin Standeven – assigning the identity of a soldier to each of the men.

“They got to read all the information about that soldier and then we all [including composer John Gzowski and production designer Jeremy Mimnagh] went to France to visit the memorial site and look at their graves,” says Lemieux, who was fine-tuning lighting cues on the eve of opening.

Jusqu’a Vimy is a totally immersive experience, lending access to the emotions and torments of people who lived through a horror 100 years ago. The show is the dance equivalent of Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars, which relived the experience of WWI soldiers from just a few kilometres north of Regent Park in Rosedale.

The men are introduced one by one as each dancer advances into the performance space. Blown up on Cheryl Lalonde’s cloth surround, are handwritten documents indicating an individual “killed in action” or “missing in action” or his pay rate. Before the dance has even begun we get stark reminders of the fragility of life.

Jusqu’a Vimy is structured in sections in which the dancer/soldiers, in period uniforms, puttees and boots, move in formation as if on a march, partner each other or make a scrum to carry off a fallen mate. Making friends, they enter battle, bombarded time and again with artillery. Or they shiver in trenches huddled against each other. You get the message, as orange explosions burst on all sides of the screen, cued to Gzowski’s powerful soundscape. One minute that soldier beside you is your pal; the next he’s a corpse.

Kaitlin Standeven enters the scene at intervals, once carrying a paper notice, another time a folded greatcoat, wandering among the soldiers as if they were ghosts of fallen husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

Mimnagh makes the landscape of the silent Vimy woods the central image, manipulating his projections to show the change of seasons and to create a lasting visual memorial. This is a show that will endure, lest we forget.

Jusqu’a Vimy

Choreography by Laurence Lemieux

Musical composition by John Gzowski

Production design by Jeremy Mimnagh

Lighting by Simon Rossiter

Costume and sets by Cheryl Lalonde

At The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance, Toronto, from November 16 to 18 and November 22 to 25

Photography by Jeremy Mimnagh

Gallery

Older, better and timeless

The 40th edition of Claudia Moore’s showcase of dance, Older and Reckless, might easily be named Older and Better. It’s hard to think of the 15 professionals working in top form as older, but a few would be considered elderly in dance terms. And a flock of volunteers, some not so old, in Peter Chin’s Tell Everyone are not dancers at all but make a wonderful team.

Chin’s huge ensemble work features Dan Wild, Bonnie Kim, Susie Burpee, Marie-Josée Chartier and Francisco Carrera leading 20 community recruits in an intricately patterned dance as Chin plays percussion instruments, including a big skin drum, on the side. The piece is a tribute to Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, a man of 23 who was knifed and killed in May on public transit in Portland, Oregon while defending two Muslim girls against a white supremacist. His last words as he lay dying in the arms of a woman bystander were, “tell everyone on this train I love them.” What the world needs now is more love and connectedness and this very east Asian, foot-stomping dance, to traditional Tibetan songs and recordings of the Bosavi people of Papua New Guinea, showed us what might happen if we all just reached out to one another.

A moving duet based on the struggles of the mentally ill, Ils m’ont dit is performed by Jane Mappin and Daniel Firth. Mappin choreographed this tender yet muscular piece, conveying a story of longing and misunderstanding in abstract movements set to a score by Erich Kory: whispering voices lead into  balladic strings with some staticky electronic sound. The couple’s pure, clean lines and complex partnering, drawing in and then repelling each other, make a love song in dance.

Heidi Latsky has been seen before on a Harbourfront stage as a partner with Lawrence Goldhuber, both of them formerly dancers with the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company. On her own since 2001, she created Countersolo in 2013. For Older and Reckless, she does a section from it, Solo One. She arrives under a murky light, appearing to walk on water. As the lights grow more intense, so does her dance speed up. This solo is short and swift and arresting.

A curious coincidence on the program is that after the colourful panoply of Chin’s Tell Everyone, every performer that follows is in all black or white.

Ric Brown and Darryl Tracey wear black pants and black shirts with white buttons, like cowboy shirts. The video backdrop looks like a desert where cowboys might roam. Lesandra Dodson choreographed In Two Days a Man Can Change, a piece from 2010. These guys might have stepped out of Sam Shepherd play, except they are more funny than grating. One goes into plank position with opposite arm and leg raised and then collapses. “What’s wrong? Not enough core strength?” teases the other. A contest ensues: the bigger guy gets down and the other one taunts him: “hold it lower.” There is talk of nemesis and heroes, meeting your dark side in a mirror-image of yourself and fun with fake mustaches and noses, as befits a dance whose title is drawn from an Elmore Leonard text about a change of character (“just like a rope pulling you into it”).

Sashar Zarif’s solo The wound is the place where the light enters you is a gripping meditation on memory and life cycles, the title inspired by the poetry of Rumi. This is a mature solo from a dancer steeped in the dance and spiritual practices of the near east and central Asia. His slow build-up to a whirling trance-like movement winds down again to a slow journey. He keeps our attention with his refined moves; walking away from us, a hand trembles slightly behind his right flank. Zarif is definitely on a positive trajectory as he grows older in dance.

The final slot on the program is an elegant solo created for veteran ballet star Evelyn Hart by Matjash Mrozewski. Hart starts from a seated position, then stands up in a long elegant ivory dress that exposes only her arms. There is something pure in Abiding, a simple statement in sweeping, flowing gestures that says not older, but timeless.

Older and Reckless #40

Produced by Claudia Moore MOonhORsE Dance Theatre in association with Harbourfront Centre

At the Harbourbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto through November 11

Photos by Tamara Romanchuk. From clockwise: Tell Everyone, Evelyn Hart, Ric Brown and Darryl Tracy, Jane Mappin and Daniel Firth

 

 

 

 

Daughter prompts a big question mark

If Adam Lazarus wanted to make us live the shame and horror of a Type A misogynist by writing a play centred on a man’s relationship with his daughter, he has certainly succeeded. Whether one wants to sit through Daughter is another question altogether.

An outstanding performer and artistic director of the Festival of Clowns, Lazarus has, along with Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, created a show that, contrary to its title, is all about men and their possessive, violent and demeaning attitudes toward women. Especially, it seems, where their daughters are concerned.

Lazarus, for whom the fourth wall has never existed, is expert at drawing in an audience, calling for judgment about whether it was wrong for a father to push his three-year-old into her bed, or asking for a definition of gang-banging versus orgies. Soon we are all complicit.

You find yourself wishing for a little censorship as he delves deeper, with plenty of detail, into his character’s pornographic obsessions, a debauched trip to Japan to find how to debase women in that culture and a horrific scene of violence against a 16-year-old girlfriend begging to be hit.

Lazarus’s man is very specific: a Toronto “lower middle-class Jew” who frequents Filmore’s strip bar and hires prostitutes. But his 70-minute confessional is guaranteed to make everyone, male or female, guilty or not, squirm in their seats.

My 36-year-old male companion assured me such men exist. Recent headlines underscore that fact. But it seems this show about “toxic masculinity” is trying to say all men have this capacity, even tendency, to demean and hurt girls and women, which is simply not true.

If the aim of Daughter was to create awareness and to educate young men, it has sadly missed the mark. Such a show was produced by Montreal writer/musician/theatre performer Norman Nawrocki in 1993. It was a one-man anti-sexist, sex-positive show responding to widespread date rape and violence against women. Nawrocki toured college and university campuses for years with I Don’t Understand Women.

It is hard in the end to discern what the point of Daughter is. It has been labelled darkly satirical, but to what end? We already know way more than we needed to know about misogyny in all its contemporary modes. If Daughter is a cry for help, it’s not one many would answer.

All I know for sure is that I wish I had stayed home instead of going to see it.

Daughter

Written and performed by Adam Lazarus

Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr

Co-produced by The Theatre Centre and QuipTake with Pandemic Theatre

At The Theatre Centre, Toronto, through November 19

Photo of Adam Lazarus by Alejandro Santiago

 

Soulpepper and Albee at their best

Timing, even more than in most plays, is critical to the successful staging of The Goat. Edward Albee’s 2002 play opens straight-forwardly enough with Stevie, a well-heeled Upper East Side type, arranging spring posies in a vase, setting the scene for her architect husband Martin who is about to be interviewed on video. The occasion is his winning the Pritzker Prize and a major building commission, World City.

“Why can’t I remember anything?” Martin asks Stevie. He can’t even recall why he’s entered the room. The two have an obvious undying affection for one another, played out in the light, witty banter that ensues. “All the senses go,” Martin observes of the aging process. “You’re only 50,” Stevie reassures. “It’s the little slips,” he notes. “Do you think it means anything?” “What’s that smell?” she sniffs when they embrace.

The Goat Or, Who is Sylvia? is a play about words and how we use them to negotiate the difficult times. The audience pays attention to a phrase like “It’s the little slips,” knowing somehow that this couple has entered a minefield. Each sentence, each movement is measured and delivered with exactitude. Alan Dilworth directs with care and insight into Albee’s precise text. Raquel Duffy as Stevie, Derek Boyes as Martin’s journalist friend Ross, Paolo Santalucia as son Billy and Albert Schultz as Martin get mileage out of every emotion-laden moment of this play.

Martin isn’t very forthcoming when his old friend Ross (they’ve known each other since they were 10) attempts an interview to mark this “pinnacle” of Martin’s career. Putting down his video camera, Ross seeks to find out what’s occupying his friend’s mind. He guesses it’s an extramarital affair. Martin struggles with what to tell him, reminiscing about a time when the young men were entertaining hookers in a shared room and Martin couldn’t perform: “the heart rules the dick.” This evasion doesn’t sit well with Ross, who has preserved a frat-boy’s understanding of infidelity being the right of every red-blooded heterosexual male.

The play cracks open not with Martin’s admission he is head-over-heels for a goat called Sylvia (“she was looking at me with those eyes of hers”) but with Stevie’s receipt of a letter from Ross detailing how her husband (“I am mortified to tell you”) is fucking a goat. Stevie has included Billy, the 17-year-old gay son, in this revelation and he is the one who is most helplessly distraught.

Lighting, sound design, costumes and set – a tastefully furnished white space that Stevie will demolish – all work toward a very nuanced production. Details build, through conversations ranging from sarcastic to explosive, to a spectacular climax. Even little things count: like Ross’s spanking new jeans with the four-inch cuff; they’re a clue to how a consciously constructed image can mask a duplicitous character.

Dilworth’s program notes cite Albee’s subtitle: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy (the Greek term for tragedy translates as “goat song”) and words from Anne Carson on the cathartic function of classical tragedy. This production fulfills expectations of classic drama to move us as well as a contemporary need to be intellectually challenged. Martin is really asking, who am I and what is my heart telling me? Meanwhile, a raging Stevie exhibits the most animalistic behaviour of anyone on stage. More than simply cathartic, this Goat stuns us into self-examination.

The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?

Written by Edward Albee

Directed by Alan Dilworth

A Soulpepper production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts , Toronto, until November 18

Photo of Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz by Cylla Von Tiedemann