Thank you, Ins Choi, for affirming my life choices.
Choi’s latest play — the hotly-awaited follow-up to his smash hit Kim’s Convenience — stages the destruction that parenthood wreaks on a young couple’s marriage and their individual psyches.
As someone who decided not to have kids, the play provided me a lovely, self-serving wash of smugness. At the same time, there were people around me in tears at the end, perhaps young parents who found their experiences affirmed by the show.
As with Kim’s Convenience, the success of Bad Parent lies in Choi’s keen observation of human foibles and his deft capacity to play the line between comedy and drama. This play also sees him skilfully deploy fourth-wall breaks, a tactic that contrasts with Kim’s naturalism. Meg Roe’s crisp production, featuring sterling performances by Josette Jorge and Raugi Yu, successfully delivers the humor, and pathos, and theatricality of Choi’s text.
The co-producing companies — Soulpepper Theatre Company, Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, and Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE) — are calling this a rolling world premiere: it moves to Vancouver’s Cultch (October 13-23) and PTE’s Winnipeg home base (November 2-20) after its Toronto run.
The play starts with Norah (Jorge) and Charles (Yu) addressing the audience while standing at microphones, telling stories about how they met and their situation now as parents of a toddler. From the beginning their accounts differ: she says they met at a wedding, he at one of his band’s gigs; he says he named their child Mountain because “the mountains were my way of getting my bearings where I grew up,” while she thought it was after a WWE wrestler.
This is smart character development and sets the comic tone for the evening: rueful chuckles rather than guffaws. While Choi starts from some recognizable types — the rudderless man-child and the ambitious career woman frustrated by motherhood — the details he’s inserted about their personalities and their ways of relating to others, as well as Jorge and Yu’s expert playing, help Norah and Charles come across as quirky, real people. The central element of Sophie Tang’s set is a stand-alone white bookshelf packed both with artifacts of the couple’s pre-baby life as well as diapers, stuffies, and baby books; appropriately, it looks like it’s straight out of a flat-pack (“That’s our whole marriage. One big ‘As Is’ section at Ikea!,” Charles says at one point).
Another deft trick on Choi’s part is having each actor play a second character: Jorge plays Nora, a nanny who Norah hires without consulting Charles so that she can go back to work (and yes, the women’s name-twinning becomes a nice gag); and Yu plays Dale, Norah’s new co-worker. There’s low-level flirtation in both those pairings which offers further information about the central characters and the challenges to their marriage. The fact that Charles and Norah are seeking affirmation from characters who look exactly like their spouses brings home that what’s going on here is not necessarily infidelity, but more likely the processing of frustration and loss of intimacy now that they live in baby-land. This character-swapping is a further showcase for Jorge and Yu’s exceptional performance skills: the subtle shifts in posture, facial and vocal expression, and relationality to each other were so effective that I always knew who was who, even when quick timing did not allow for a costume change (design by Brenda McLean).
One of the most interesting parts of the play and production for me was the way the audience was interpellated into the action: Charles and Norah compete to convince us about their version of events, sometimes zapping out of otherwise naturalistic scenes to offer aside comments. In a smart sequence of scenes, we first see Norah knowingly banter with Dale, acknowledging that in such workplace friendships they can present ideal versions of themselves; and then Charles performs a song he wrote for Norah earlier in their relationship, living out his dreams of rock stardom (Gerald King’s lights and Deanna H Choi’s sound design and music production particularly shine here). Both are acting out fantasies of themselves in ways that follow on from and add to their characterizations, and the audience’s vantage on these interactions is tellingly different — we are eavesdropping on Norah’s exchange, but Charles is begging for our adulation. Eventually the central characters acknowledge that the audience represents the judgment they believe is cast upon them as new parents and just as humans living in contemporary society.
The content of Bad Parent could well make for a fun TV series, following up on the success of Kim’s Convenience on CBC: the plotlines about Nora the Filipinx nanny and the food truck project she dreams up with Charles, about Norah’s workplace, and about Charles’s stiflingly adoring mother could make for great secondary plots. But as presented here the material is necessarily and rewardingly theatrical, and the play is notable for the thoughtfulness of the dramaturgy by PTE artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones.
Even though I don’t have direct experience of the 24/7 presence of a wailing, burbling, bed-stealing toddler, I know — as do many, many other people, I think — what it feels like to have external pressures wear down my self-esteem so much that I start behaving poorly towards others, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bad parents, no. Excellent play, yes.
Bad Parent runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts through October 9. Tickets are available here.