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

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

Do we take sides or take a stand?

“Dense” is a word you might use to describe the writing in Other Side of the Game, a play by Amanda Parris, now running at Daniels Spectrum. You can imagine director Nigel Shawn Williams mounting this production by parsing sections of the dialogue between alternating pairs and trios of characters played by five actors in a show that delves into black activism in Toronto.

Parris’s premise is that the personal and the political are inseparable and that action in the public realm inevitably impacts one’s private struggles and vice versa.

Lights come up on Virgilia Griffith, Shakura Dickson, Ryan Rosery, Peter Bailey and Ordena Stephens-Thompson seated silently in straight-backed chairs. Their choreographed shouts of anger and frustration, sighs, yawns, squirming and rising turns out to be set in a prison waiting room, where women waiting to visit prisoners are confounded by jail protocols. One screams that she hasn’t heard her number announced. The overhead voice of a prison guard says, “That’s your problem; you should have listened.”

The damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t jail routines make a solid metaphor for what the characters in Other Side of the Game are caught in: on both the domestic and the political front, a no-win situation.

Akilah (Virgilia Griffith) is a tireless sistah, a single mum and organizer who’s willing to give her all for the cause, with love.  and has a penchant for citing pithy, inspirational quotes from Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. In the office of an organization mounting a protest against police brutality, her opposite number is an earnest, absolutist radical, Khalil (Ryan Rosery), more likely to quote Malcolm X. Enter Beverley (Shakura Dickson), a student from the black community in Halifax whose innocent desire to join the movement is opposed by Brother Khalil. Akilah wants to give Beverley a chance.

With a quick scene change we see that Dickson is now playing Shevon, a slang-speaking dish who is chatting with her friend Nicole, played by Griffith ̶ with no visible or audible change in appearance.  Nicole is also a single mother and works shifts as a cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart. She has a penchant for citing pithy, inspirational quotes from Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. Soon Rosery shows up again, as Nicole’s boyfriend Devonte, a man with a criminal past who has been away for two years.

The time frame here is about a week, during which Akilah, Khalil and Beverley work on the big demonstration while Nicole and Shevon engage in abusive relationships with their boyfriends.

Peter Bailey is marvellous as an old Caribbean guy who bears memories and methods from the civil rights movement in the U.S. He disputes the attitude of the younger generation, especially when it comes to violence and crime. Later Bailey shines as Shevon’s gangsta boyfriend.

Ordena Stephens-Thompson does double duty as an authoritarian female cop and the guidance counsellor who advises Devonte against trying to complete a diploma that would get him into university.

(“This transition program is for people who’ve demonstrated potential . . .”)

Parris’ makes a compelling drama with Other Side of the Game while covering real issues in Toronto’s African-Canadian community. From drug trafficking and prison horrors to carding and child poverty, she creates a real story to carry important messages.

Joanna Yu’s simple set of graffiti-ed walls and a garbage-littered chain-link fence make staging–moving around some concrete armchairs–simple. And sound designer Verne Good bridges rapidly changing scenes with well chosen musical transitions.

Even at the fast pace of the play, it feels long and is confusing. The lengthy opener with the miming and the chairs doesn’t lend anything to the piece. Add to the longueurs an opening-night fire alarm at the Daniels Spectrum complex that caused us all to evacuate the theatre for more than 20 minutes.

Such accomplished actors as this cast could surely have been directed to inflect their different characters so we always know who’s who. As it is, only Shevon and Beverley are easily differentiated.

Still, this is an energetic and inspiring performance from Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre.

Other Side of the Game

Written by Amanda Parris

Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams

Produced by Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre,

At the Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto until November 5

Photo of Virgilia Griffith and Shakura Dickson by Dahlia Katz

 

 

 

 

 

Pulling out all the stops for a comedy musical

The Adventures of Tom Shadow has nothing much to do with the adventures of a Peter Pan-like kidnapper who spirits two children away from their suburban beds. That’s just a little joke underpinning the wildly funny Theatre Lab comedy musical put together by an ensemble of Second City alumnae, all of them singers, movers and sketch-comedy artists.

John Chastain (Mark Little) is a Tolstoy scholar who met his wife Bev (Natalia Metcalfe) at university where she was studying to become a policewoman.

Their children, Martin (Christian Smith) and Angeline (Lisa Gilroy) have just been tucked in following the nightly reading from Anna Karenina (a discussion of the train suicide ensues) when a magical guy in a red silk top hat (Kevin Vidal) comes in to lure the kids off to his Cloud Kingdom.

Director Peter Stevens (The Irrelevant Show, Bad Dog Theatre, Elephant Empire) has shaped a show that is as tight as a drum, combining crazy mime, highly co-ordinated song and dance and a cascade of gags accompanied live on piano by musical director Jordan Armstrong. Tuneful social satire is incorporated into hilarious sketches in which Bev becomes an over-zealous cop on a quest to find her own children and gossipy neighbours join the search as a way to up their daily Fitbit steps.

Time and context are fluid in this fast-paced 90-minute show. The leap from talk of Anna Karenina to school bullies, for instance, is accomplished through the laughably cloying kissing song (“don’t let the Russian Orthodox Church get you down”). Back story scenes include wimpy John as a boy trying to get in with the Runaway Boys, by bouncing chin first down an impossibly steep skateboard chute (or so it seems).

Little and Metcalfe do a charmed duet as a couple divorcing, singing about “spiralling down” as husband John struggles to get a gold band off his ring finger, finally resorting, without dropping a note, to Vaseline.

Lisa Gilroy gets the horror show moment as Diane, a Hannibal Lector wheeled on stage in a prison straitjacket with a muzzle over her mouth. This is the climax of a scene where determined cop Bev goes to a woman’s maximum-security prison, “to get inside the mind of a monster.” Turns out the inmates share a common modus operandi: it’s a poop joke that actually works.

Fantasy and silliness and some very sly digs at contemporary society make for an action-packed entertainment that leaves you sidesplit but wanting more.

The Adventures of Tom Shadow

Written and performed by Lisa Gilroy, Mark Little, Natalie Metcalfe, Christian Smith and Kevin Vidal

Directed by Peter Stevens

Music by Jordan Armstrong

Lighting by Meg Maguire

Presented by Theatre Lab at Factory Theatre, Toronto

Oct. 11 to 14 and 17 to 21

 

 

It’s a mad, mad, media world

Right off the top, Flashing Lights looks and sounds like parody and gets lots of laughs but this show becomes a disturbing dystopia by taking our image-ridden, screen-obsessed culture to its logical conclusion.

A domestic scene of Peter (Dan Watson), wife Shannon (Miranda Calderon) and teenage daughter Ter (Liz Peterson) at breakfast is familiar. Everyone’s glued to a screen – a smartphone, a laptop, a tablet — as multiple streams of music and talk play over the conversations. Ter, wearing a monster mask, turns her cell on Dad, eating Kellogg’s Corn Pops from a bowl and singing along to “Take it Easy,” a song recalled from a long-ago road trip when Ter was a toddler.

Somehow the cellphone video of Peter munching and singing gets posted on Instagram and goes viral as “Cereal Guy.” Peter, an unemployed writer, goes to pitch a story to an editor looking for content – free content. He advises Peter to turn his story idea into a list. By the time his meeting is over, Peter has become a meme. Hashtag Cereal Guy is on everyone’s radar. “You’ve had 20 million views,” someone tells him.

What follows is a fast-moving illustration of the electronic age predicted by Marshal McLuhan, who appears on the scrim in a video interview where he’s predicting a time when everyone’s under surveillance and everything moves at the speed of light. “Things happen very quickly, there is no time to get accustomed to anything.”

Live video, handheld cellphones capturing every move, an iPad face that switches from a happy image to a sad one, a heavy techno soundscape and ever-changing imagery on the scrim in front of the stage make for a largely entertaining, but inevitably distracting 90-minute show.

Talk of how “you’re just an image, a discarnate image,” segues to the making of Dad as a celebrity, then a pitchman, then a contender for leader of the Liberal party, then a bit of a porn star and finally a “dead meme.”

Shannon disappears – on a venture to leave biology and become some sort of electronic essence. Meanwhile, Ter goes back to nature, taking on the body of a deer.

Gags, along the lines of “you’ve had some work done, some upgrades,” keep up the pace and the staging is more than clever. These performers are all adeptly physical, which they have to be to keep up with the velocity of the ever-changing imagery.

Needless to say, it becomes hard to focus on any single aspect of this theatre piece, such as the plot, but one comes away from it pleasantly buzzed.

 

Flashing Lights: A High-Tech Fable About Our Digital Lives

Created by the company with text by Guillermo Verdecchia

Co-produced by Ahuri Theatre & Bad New Days Performance

Directed by Adam Paolozza

Performed by Liz Peterson, Miranda Calderon, Dan Watson, Adam Paolozza and Guillermo Verdecchia

Until October 22 at the Theatre Centre, Toronto