By Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho), directed by Mike Payette. Through Oct. 9 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. tarragontheatre.com or 416-531-1827
Shimmering with rich language, colourful characters and incisive humour, “Cockroach,” the latest play by acclaimed theatre artist Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho), is an introspective exploration of survival, identity and migration.
Its world premiere at Tarragon Theatre, deftly helmed by artistic director Mike Payette and buoyed by a trio of incendiary performances, is far and away one of the strongest new productions of the year.
Coming-of-age, immigrant stories on Canadian stages are about as abundant as new condos in Toronto — this season alone, you need look no further than “Dixon Road” and the Toronto Fringe hit “9428,” both fantastic — but Ho skilfully breaks the mould of these oft-told tales by traversing into terrain rarely seen in the theatre.
Perhaps the word that comes closest to characterizing Ho’s mercurial, shape-shifting play is “choreopoem,” a term coined by American playwright and poet Ntozake Shange to describe her first work, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.”
What both “Cockroach” and “for colored girls” share is the way text and movement, the auditory and the visual, are fused together to create a cerebral, out-of-body experience.
The proceedings are built around a loose narrative of three seemingly disparate characters: a shrewd cockroach (Steven Hao); a Bard, or rather the spirit of William Shakespeare (Karl Ang); and a boy (Anton Ling) processing a traumatic event.
It’s ambiguous, at first, how the three characters are connected. We first meet Hao’s cockroach, smoking some catnip on the lip of the stage. For the first third of the play, in an almost fantastical sequence, he recounts his life journey: from his conception at a Whitney Houston concert and his, rather graphic, birth in a soiled baby’s diaper to his journey across oceans from America to Hong Kong and back east across the Pacific Ocean to Canada.
Then there’s Ang’s restless Bard, bemoaning his immortality and how his words continue to live on in the minds and speech of those who study his work. In an energetic scene, he bounds across the stage, rattling off sayings he invented and the plays from which they originated. Are our thoughts really ours, he asks, if the words and phrases we use to form them come from someone else?
As the play unravels, the bug and the Bard squabble over Ling’s timid boy, whose hunched posture and disconsolate eyes recede into the background of the overwhelming, grey urban jungle that is Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart’s set.
Their stories begin to intertwine and, in a way, are one and the same. Seemingly insignificant details return with added resonance.
The insect and the spirit of Shakespeare, at least the way I interpreted it, are parts of the boy’s fractured self. The cockroach is the unwanted half: the pest, the foreigner living in the shadow of other creatures. The Bard is what we inherit — our language, our adopted culture — but that may not be truly who we are.
I am loathe to reveal how exactly the three characters come together, but I will say the scene when it does occur, toward the end of Ho’s 80-minute play, is haunting and deeply moving.
That the journey up to that point is so utterly rewarding is in no small part thanks to Ho’s text, which is dense and layered, peppered with sharp humour and an idiosyncratic style that leaves lines flying off the stage and bouncing between characters.
Under Payette’s assured direction, the marriage between the material and the creative team’s vision is in complete harmony. Hanna Kiel’s beguiling choreography accentuates the inherent poetry in Ho’s script. Hao, Ang and Ling twist, slide and climb over and across each other and the multi-level set.
Each of the actors offer crackling performances. Hao and Ang are larger than life as the cockroach and Bard, with a magnifying presence that consumes the 205-seat Tarragon Mainspace. Meanwhile, Ling’s quiet performance as the boy draws the audience in through its subtlety and nuanced detail.
There is much to unpack in these three performances and in Ho’s ambitious new work — far more than is possible in a 700-word review. As I write this Monday, four days after opening night, I still find myself parsing Ho’s expressive language, as the layers of the work and the connections within continue to linger and steep in my mind.
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