Tracing identity through the sacrifices & dreams of matriarchal herstory in the moving, delightful, lyrical trace

Jeff Ho; set design by Nina Lee Aquino and Michelle Ramsay; lighting design by Michelle Ramsay—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Factory Theatre, in association with b current performing arts, presents the world premiere of Jeff Ho’s trace, a multidisciplinary journey of family and identity, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Darrel Gamotin, and currently running in the Factory Studio space.

Written, performed and composed by Ho, trace is structured as a Piano Sonata, with Five Movements, plus a Prelude and a Coda. Featuring the three most influential women in his life, the storytelling weaves memories with family mythology and moments, travelling through time and across borders—taking family apart and reuniting them.

Starting in the present day, Jeff’s mother (Ma) Kwan Miu Chi (44 years old) returns home to Hong Kong with her eldest son, looking for a place to stay. She finds drastically different receptions from her grandmother (Jeff’s Great Grandma) Kwan Bo Siu (85 years old), who seems happy to see her, but proceeds to gruffly enlist her aid in ridding the apartment of rats; and mother (Jeff’s Grandma) Kwan Wei Foon (64 years old), who is decidedly chilly and resistant to having two more mouths to feed.

As the story shifts back and forth in time and place, we see the three women at various ages—and the world and circumstances that shaped them and their relationships with their children. As a young, single mother, Great Grandma Kwan Bo Siu fled the WWII Japanese invasion of China with her son to live in Hong Kong, where she faced new struggles to find work and survive. Grandma Kwan Wei Foon was 16 when she met her husband to be, receiving a scornful and cross introduction to his mother (Bo Siu); and subsequently garnering constant disapproval and always having to prove herself, and supporting her mother-in-law in her old age. And Jeff’s Ma Kwan Miu Chi, who left Hong Kong for Toronto in pursuit of a better life for herself and two young sons, was once refused tuition to go to school by her mother (Wei Foon). Finding support and commonality with her grandmother (Bo Siu)—who possessed mad skills and an ability to earn great sums at the mahjong table—she was able to pursue her education and chosen profession. And just as Wei Foon and Miu Chi battled over Mui Chi’s dream of becoming an accountant, the economically cautious, traditionally-minded Miu Chi goes on to butt heads with her youngest son Jeff, who eschews academics for the arts, especially the piano.

Ho, who gave us a lovely Ophelia in Why Not Theatre’s production of Prince Hamlet, does an equally beautiful job with these women, capturing their vulnerability, stubbornness—and ultimately determined strength as they ferociously carry on through tragedy and hard times. Charming, eloquent and a wonder on the keys, Ho shifts seamlessly between characters with precise body language and vocal qualities: the hard-talking, chain smoking mahjong Queen Great Grandma Kwan Bo Siu; the imperious, cold and distant Grandma Kwan Wei Foon; and the strict, practical, sharp negotiator Ma Kwan Miu Chi (who also inherited the maternal mahjong queen gene). Amidst the struggles for survival, family is of the utmost importance to these women. All are striving for a better life for themselves and their children—and keeping the line of caretaker from parent to child and back again intact.

The two pianos on stage play out the exquisitely beautiful, Piano Sonata-inspired framework of this story, composed by Ho—and stand in for the other characters the women encounter along the way. The Fifth Movement, played in the home key, is particularly heart-wrenching. During the talkback that followed the performance (hosted by Miquelon Rodriguez), Ho describes this as the most challenging aspect of performance: making the piano speak as a character so the interaction is as clear as possible.

trace is nicely bookended as we return to the present day. The revelations of family history, sacrifice and secret shame bring a painful sense of redemption and closure to the three generations of women—and the realization of why they are the way they are. For Ho, who combined fact, fiction and conjecture to create the piece, it is the story of the three women who made him who he is.

With shouts to Aquino and Michelle Ramsay for the elegant, multi-level platform set design; the black platforms with red legs evoking beautiful Chinese lacquer furniture.

Tracing identity through the sacrifices and dreams of matriarchal herstory in the moving, delightful, lyrical trace.

trace continues in the Factory Theatre Studio till December 3. Get your advance tickets online, by phone at 416-504-9971 or in-person at 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide St. W.).

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Betrayal & ruin to forgiveness & reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It

Photo by Daniela Mason: George Brown Theatre School class of 2017

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 takes us back to a time of rum-running gangsters in their production of As You Like It (directed by Geoffrey Pounsett), currently running in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by alum Aaron Willis) in the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I dropped by the Young Centre for As You Like It yesterday afternoon.

We learn via a remarkably staged prologue, set as a silent film reel delightfully set up by the Fool Touchstone (Thomas Nyhuus), how Duke Senior (Chase Jeffels) was betrayed by his brother Frederick (Jake Runeckles) and banished, his organization taken over by the traitorous Frederick, who becomes the new Duke. Duke Frederick allows his niece Rosalind (Justine Christensen) to stay as a companion for his daughter Celia (Geneviéve DeGraves), who is very fond of her bff cousin.

In a parallel tale of sibling betrayal, Orlando (Seamus Dillon-Easton) has endured a life of abuse and neglect at the hand of his older sister Olivia (Lucy Meanwell), who has betrayed their father Sir Rowland’s charge to look after her younger brother after his death. When Orlando goes to test his mettle in a wrestling match with Charles (Jeffels), a favourite of the new Duke, he crosses paths with Rosalind and the two are mutually smitten. Winning the match, Orlando also wins a new enemy in the Duke, and returns home to learn from the faithful family servant Adam (Patrick Horan) that his sister is plotting to kill him—prompting him to flee, with Adam accompanying him.

Displeased at Rosalind’s popularity with a sympathetic public, and wary that this will reflect badly on his daughter, the Duke banishes Rosalind. In an ultimate act of friendship and loyalty, Celia elects to go with her; and the two concoct disguises so they may travel in safety, with Rosalind dressing as a man called Ganymede and Celia as his sister Aliena. Enlisting the Touchstone as their travelling companion, they too flee their home.

Meanwhile, Orlando and Adam have made their way to the forest of Arden, where they come upon Duke Senior and a group of loyal followers, who are living a merry rustic life in the woods. Merry, except for sad sack Jaques (Parmida Vand), who perceives all on the darker, melancholy side. Now living in the forest and pining for Rosalind, Orlando takes to praising her dear name in poetry and posting it on the trees.

Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone find themselves a cottage in the forest; and Rosalind discovers Orlando’s poetry on the trees. To test his love, she (as Ganymede) tells Orlando she can cure his love sickness if he comes to woo him as if he were Rosalind. Meanwhile lovesick neighbouring shepherd Silvius (Evan MacKenzie) is pursuing the uninterested Phebe (Gabriella Albino), who becomes love struck when she meets Ganymede/Rosalind. Even Touchstone finds a sweetheart: the lovely, simple shepherdess Audrey (Jocelyn Feltham).

Orlando’s sister Olivia arrives on the scene after getting a taste of her own medicine from the Duke, forcing her to flee to the forest. She comes to Ganymede/Rosalind and Aliena/Celia with news of Orlando, who has been seriously wounded by a lioness while saving her. Contrite and seeking redemption for her wrong-doing, she has joined Duke Senior, who was a good friend to her father. And, not to leave Celia out of the romance, she and Olivia are obviously and immediately taken with each other. Realizing she truly loves Orlando—and left with two love knots to untangle—Rosalind plans a wedding in the woods, promising to sort everything out, including the plight of lovesick shepherd Silvius and the callous Phebe.

And all is revealed at the wedding, with much merriment, music and dancing—and Rosalind reunited with her father, who is restored to his office in yet another fortuitous twist of Shakespearean fate.

Excellent work from the ensemble, who get ample opportunity to showcase their considerable music and vocal chops with a number of delightful songs and musical numbers—led by music directors/composers/classmates Lucas Penner and Jake Runeckles.

Stand-out performances include Christensen, who is luminous as the brave, witty and resourceful Rosalind; great chemistry with Dillon-Easton’s Orlando, who goes from courageous risk-taker in endeavor to bashful mute in the face of love. Both become adorably moonstruck silly in love.

DeGraves gives Celia a feisty and fiery spark; deeply loyal to the point of defying her cruel father, Celia leaves her lush city life behind to find herself, hilariously, a fish out of water in the country. Meanwell does a nice job with Olivia’s salvation; going from snake-like cruelty to kind repentance, and finding herself shot with Cupid’s arrow when she meets Celia (lovely chemistry there as well).

Nyhuus is a treat as the saucy Touchstone; cocky and always up for a debate, like Celia he’s not thrilled to be away from the comforts of home, but valiantly makes the best of it as he diverts himself with lusty pursuits of his own. And Vand gives us an engaging and entertaining Jaques; a melancholy loner who takes cheer in Touchstone’s shenanigans, her pessimism rings with the air of a realist resigned to the true nature of the world, which can often be a cruel joke.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on creating this magical, industrial meets pastoral world: Ken MacKenzie (set), Shannon Lea Doyle (costumes) and Michelle Ramsay (lighting); and to Simon Fon (fight choreography) and Robert McCollum (dance choreography).

Betrayal and ruin to forgiveness and reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It.

As You Like It continues at the Young Centre in the Tank House Theatre until Feb 18; A Midsummer Night’s Dream also runs until Feb 18; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

Sin of the father in the deeply moving, spiritual, revelatory acquiesce

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Rosie Simon & David Yee in acquiesce – photos by Dahlia Katz

Factory Theatre joins forces with fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company to open Factory’s 2016-17 season of diverse voices speaking to the Canadian experience with David Yee’s acquiesce in the Factory Theatre Mainspace, directed by Factory Theatre A.D. Nina Lee Aquino.

Writer Sin Hwang (David Yee) struggles with moving beyond the success of his first novel and a troubled past with his estranged father Tien Wei (John Ng). Learning from his ex-girlfriend Nine (Rosie Simon) that his father has died, he finds himself being summoned to Hong Kong for the funeral by his cousin Kai (Richard Lee), who is acting as Tien Wei’s executor.

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Richard Lee, David Yee & Rosie Simon in acquiesce

Half Chinese, and with little knowledge of Chinese cultural tradition, and not able to speak or understand Cantonese, Sin soon finds himself adrift in culture shock as he learns from Kai that he has duties to perform as the eldest son. From there, Sin embarks on a reluctant journey of family, roots and spirituality as he navigates the traditional burial rites, as well as moments of memory, hallucinatory visions and symbolism that feature conversations with a ribald Paddington Bear, a hilariously insightful monk and his ex.

Lovely performances from the cast, with Ng and Simon playing multiple characters. Yee does a wonderful job mining Sin’s flippancy and arrogance for the repressed pain that lies beneath; with scars that go far beyond skin deep, Sin tries not to care but finds that he must – not just for his own sake, but for his father. As Sin’s cousin Kai, Lee brings a great combination of terse fastidiousness and tender care aesthetic; a stickler for propriety and rules, and with a dry humour that takes some getting used to, he has his own familial bitterness to deal with.

We don’t see much of Sin’s father Tien Wei, but Ng gives us a solid glimpse into a man who has his own demons to battle; a harsh, gruff and dark-humoured man, his last Will and Testament is his way of reaching out to his son across years of pain and separation. And Ng is a comedic delight in his quirkier, fun roles as Sin’s airplane seatmate and the frank, pithy, jokester monk. Simon’s Nine is quick-witted and frank; a lovely, supportive girlfriend but no doormat to Sin, she tells it like it is and will only take so much of his self-absorption. Simon brings the comedy as the stern librarian and the overly cheerful funeral home attendant.

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John Ng & David Yee in acquiesce

With shouts to Robin Fisher’s set and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design; austere and monolithic, the set features some cool, practical sliding drawer furniture pieces, the lighting adding to the otherworldly atmosphere as it highlights the scenes. And to Michelle Bensimon’s beautifully haunting, evocative composition and sound design.

Sin of the father in the deeply moving, spiritual, revelatory acquiesce.

acquiesce continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Nov 27; advance tix and ticket info available online.

You can keep up with Factory Theatre on Twitter and Facebook; and with fu-GEN on their Twitter and Facebook pages.

Compelling, unflinching & charming storytelling in deeply poignant & hilariously funny Huff

Cliff Cardinal in Huff - photo by akipari
Cliff Cardinal in Huff – photo by akipari

“There is one thing we know attracts Trickster: fear.”

Better late than never; I was originally scheduled to see Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of Cliff Cardinal’s Huff a week ago, but got grounded by a nasty cold – so I was very happy to have a chance to see it last night. Directed by Karin Randoja and currently running at Aki Studio, Huff is an incredibly strong opener for Native Earth’s 2015-16 season.

Last night’s performance featured a pre-show chat with the design team: Jackie Chau (set and costume), Michelle Ramsay (lighting) and Alex Williams (sound). Moderated by Native Earth’s Managing Director Isaac Thomas, the group talked about their early influences and what drew them to theatre production; and how a history of working together brings an organic rhythm and shorthand in communication, as well as a sense of trust (and the camaraderie was evident in the exchange between them). The design elements are integrated in such a way that if one were missing, there would be a hole in the production – light, sound and space equally important in telling this story.

When asked about the personal importance of telling the story of Huff, Chau highlighted the universal and resonant themes of loss, pain and forgiveness; Ramsay pointed out that it’s important to tell stories that don’t often get told/heard, and how Huff goes beyond what you might see in a news headline to the emotional core of the experience. Williams, a First Nations ally who keeps in touch with FN issues and supports FN productions, has a great deal of respect for this work – and pointed out the interconnectedness of the creative, intellectual and emotional in Huff, even through the play’s theme of disconnection.

Once the stage has cleared in preparation for the performance to begin, you take it in. Four flats, with a flickering projection of a Vacant sign on the one down stage right; centre stage, on the floor, a painted circle like the moon, transected with branch-like appendages. And within the space, a case of beer, an overturned chair, a lone beer bottle, an ottoman. Simple, but evocative – and made to stand alone, as well as to travel well for the production’s tour dates.

Three young brothers struggle with neglect, abuse and addiction after the death of their mother, spending more time at an abandoned motel than they do at home or school. Told from the point of view of the middle brother, Wind – performed by Cree playwright/actor Cardinal – Huff is a one-man show with a cast of many characters that incorporates Indigenous mythology, storytelling and first-person narrative. The opening scene is by turns darkly funny, heart-pounding and raw – leaving no room for doubt that this is some serious shit. Cardinal turns it from harrowing to hilarious with puckish mischief and charm, a dynamic that continues throughout the telling of this tale.

Cardinal’s performance is razor sharp and direct, but also engaging and irreverently funny – and he regularly breaks the fourth wall to yank us into the story, making the audience part of Wind’s world. This dynamic adds to the tension of the piece – and forces us to recognize that, as witnesses, we are culpable in our passivity and in our actions. The effect is both fascinating and disconcerting. [Those of you who’ve read cowbell before know that I don’t like spoilers, so you’ll be getting none here. You’ll just have to go see for yourselves.] And ever present, watchful and full of shenanigans is Trickster.

Adeptly spinning out scenes and moments from Wind’s troubled, hallucination-filled fantasy world, Cardinal fluidly weaves in and out of each character. Protective of his younger brother (a wide-eyed, adorable and magical child), but caught in the middle between him and their cruel, abusive older brother, and their largely absent, frustrated father, Wind vacillates between disconnection and revelation – trying to keep the darkness at bay with beer, gas sniffing and dangerous games, but ultimately undone by the growing awareness that he can’t get away. The appearance of the boys’ hapless, put-upon step-mother; their straight-talking, pragmatic grandmother; their uptight, ineffectual and punitive schoolteacher; goofy, elf-like friend; and the icy cool and cocky local radio DJ inject comic relief to the tale, as well as insights on the harsh realities of everyday life on the reservation. Ultimately, Wind’s journey leads him to the darkest place in order for him to see the light.

So next time you see a high or drunk native person, or read about a native kid who died huffing gasoline, don’t be so quick to judge – and stop to think about what horrors brought them to that place.

Huff is a compelling piece of storytelling, unflinching in its harsh reality, charming in its magic, deeply poignant and funny.

Huff continues at Aki Studio until October 25; then it’s off on an eight-city national tour (check back in at the Huff page on the Native Earth site for details). Get out to see this. Click here for the Aki Studio run tickets and location info.

You can keep up with Native Earth Performing Arts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.