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.).


Rich tapestry of image, sound & dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener


Nightwood Theatre partners with Volcano, Richard Jordan Productions UK and Moveable Beast Collective to present Century Song, opening last night in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre’s home at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.

This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).

Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.

Century_Song_7With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.

The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.

Century_Song_6Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.

Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.

With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).

A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.

Century Song continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until April 29; advance tickets available online. Get out to see it—this is theatre like you’ve never seen.

Department of Corrections: The original post contained a typo in director Ross Manson’s surname; that has since been corrected.

An eclectic, trippy journey through sound on Robert Graham’s “Storm in a Teacup” CD

Storm in a Teacup coverWhen I dropped by Red Sandcastle Theatre for the In Loo Of fundraiser a few weeks ago, owner/manager/AD Rosemary Doyle introduced me to Robert Graham, who was there to accompany singers on piano for the four-day open mic event. While chatting with Graham, I learned that he’s also a singer/songwriter – and I headed home that evening with a copy of his Storm in a Teacup CD.

Co-produced by Graham and Chris Brown, Storm in a Teacup is a trippy, eclectic collection of pop, rock and blues – with hints of jazz and soul – accompanied by some stand-out musicians and vocalists, including Graham, Brown, Anton Fier, Andy Love, Teddy Kumpel, Rob Jost, Tony Scherr, Alec Barken, Dan Charbonneau, Eli Abrams, John Abrams, Ford Pier, Eric Schenkman, Kerryn Graham and Leann Cunningham.

Storm in a Teacup starts out with the gentle, unassuming instrumental track “Blue Lullaby (Intro.),” slips into pop ballad “Reaching You” and finishes with a soul vibe on “Set it Free (Afro-Astro Mix),” a remix of earlier mellow pop track “Set it Free.” From the epic rock-operatic “Living in a Coma” to the comic tale of unrequited love in “In Love with a Girl” to the haunting jazz/blues-infused piano instrumental “Second Prelude,” there’s a big range of emotional and musical expression on this record. And “Jonathan Baker” combines the whimsical poignancy of Beatles storytelling with the dark social commentary of The Police’s “Synchronicity II” – a quiet life of desperation about to explode in the face of a cruel world. The lyric “It’s easy to be nasty. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to be nice” is particularly potent. Storm in a Teacup is a trippy journey through genres and musical moments, each song a brand new vibe. Check it out.

You can catch Robert Graham, playing with his new band The Fairest and the Best at The Central on Monday, May 13 at 7 p.m. And on Friday, May 24, he’ll be hosting Robert Graham and Friends – A Fundraising Concert for the “We Are Jose” Campaign – 7:30 p.m. at Lower Ossington Theatre. For details on these two shows, please visit the Gigs page on Graham’s website.

Robert Tanglefoot photo
Robert Graham

In the meantime, you can also pay him a visit on his YouTube channel and check out his new single “Believe In Love.